Some days, you’ll find me reaching for Kleenex when I see a video of a teen being big-hearted and doing the right thing even when nobody’s watching. I’m unapologetic about my eyes welling up—it brings me hope to see a kid’s kindness and capacity to care for others. Like many parents, I hope my seven year old grows up to be a teenager with an abundance of empathy and courage to act for good.

For parents, are there strategies that can help nurture our teens’ compassionate instincts? A recent study explored this question.

Researcher Gustavo Carlo and his colleagues studied over 400 teens from Spain annually for three years beginning when they were between 13 and 17 years old.

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In the first year, researchers surveyed teens about the ways their parents encouraged them to be caring, helpful, and generous toward others. Some of those ways were social (like showing love and affection when teens did something good for others) and some were material (like a points system or allowance for helping around the house).

In the second year, researchers surveyed teens’ empathy, based on statements like “The problems of others worry me.” To find out how teens would reason about helping others, they had teens read short stories about characters who find themselves in situations where they have the opportunity to help, even though doing so would go against their own goals or needs.

For example, one story was about someone heading to a friend’s party who finds a girl injured from a fall along the way. The girl asks the main character to go to her house and get her parents so they can take her to the doctor. If the main character did help the girl, she would be late for the party and miss having fun with her friends.

After each story, the researchers asked teens what the main character should do: help or not help (or if they were unsure). Teens also rated how much various possible reasons factored into their choice, such as:

  • It depends how much fun she expects the party to be, and what sorts of things are happening at the party.
  • It depends whether the girl really needs help or not.
  • It depends whether her parents and friends will think she did the right or the wrong thing.
  • It depends if she thinks it’s the decent thing to do or not.
  • It depends how she would feel about herself if she helped or not.

In the third year, researchers surveyed teens’ tendency to be helpful in different circumstances.

The results? Teens whose parents used more social ways to encourage kindness early on tended to have more empathy. In turn, they were also more inclined to help in a variety of situations—including when someone was very upset, when someone asked for help, and (driven by their own moral convictions about caring for others) when the teen didn’t expect a reward in return. On the other hand, they were less inclined to help in public situations when they might be selfishly motivated to look good in front of others.

But teens whose parents encouraged kindness in more material ways early on tended to use less moral reasoning based on caring for others—and, in turn, were less likely to help when they didn’t expect a reward.

So what can parents do to raise caring kids? This study can’t definitively answer that question, but the findings suggest that what parents do to nurture kids’ compassion early on in life may matter years down the road. In particular, you might want to reconsider using material encouragement to foster your teens’ kindness, because it does not seem to help teens deeply understand the value of selfless concern for others.

Material rewards like points systems and allowances for doing chores, doling out extra privileges (like more screen time) for helping others, or giving gifts for being kind can backfire because they might foster materialistic values in teens. “Perhaps such practices encourage youth to consider selfish or external reasons when faced with opportunities to help others, which is characteristic of lower levels of prosocial moral reasoning,” write Carlo and his colleagues.

To nurture your teen’s capacity to care for others, you can show them gratitude or simply acknowledge and support them when they do things like be generous toward their siblings, rally friends to welcome a new kid at school, help with washing the dishes, or volunteer to clean up the neighborhood park. Social encouragement seems to lead to kindness because it can grow your teen’s empathy and help them to internalize moral principles based on compassion. It’s that deep understanding that comes from within that may matter most for raising a caring kid.

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