Helping behavior in children : who are those 'some of them some of the time' kids?

Hampson, Robert Butler, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Tavormina, Joseph B., Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Koch-Sheras, Phyllis, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Allen, Andreea, University of Virginia
Hetherington, Mavis, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Previous research with respect to helpful behavior in children has focused primarily upon situational influences, such as training or modeling, upon entire samples of children. However, more recently, an increasing movement toward idiographic assessment and reliance on individual characteristic responsiveness to situations has demonstrated that, at best, one can account for behavioral performance of only "some of the people some of the time". In fact, some studies of children in helping situations have isolated, but not studied, small percentages of children who persist in helping when the majority of their peers do not. Consequently, the examination of relevant characteristics of helpful children, and how such characteristics interact with situational/ behavioral influences to produce helping behavior, appear of paramount importance.

Several important characteristics of helpful children have been forwarded by previous research, though not studied in detail. Among these are family socialization style, self-esteem, affiliative and empathic tendency, and status of peer group acceptance, but no one has directly compared most helpful with less helpful peers on these measures. As a result, the present study contrasted personality and demographic family variables between high and low helpful peers.

Ninety eighth-graders from a public middle school were sociametrically rated by homeroom classmates on "helpful" and "popular" dimensions; then were observed on six behavioral helping tasks; and finally assessed on a personality inventory, the Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale, the Bem Sex- Role Inventory, Mehrabian’s Affiliative and Empathic tendency scales, and a brief interview regarding family composition and friendship/activity preferences. Across the board, those boys and girls who were most helpful across situations appeared significantly more adjusted than less helpful peers in terms of personality measures, and were significantly more consistent in their helping approach than other subjects. In addition, those most helpful subjects demonstrated higher percentages of androgynous sex-typing than mid- or low-helpful subjects. And, perhaps most importantly, the best-adjusted (and within them the most helpful) adolescents came from more educated families (particularly they had more educated mothers), indicating that some element of family style related to education strongly influenced the psychosocial adaptation of the child, of which helping was a part.

However, when rated "helpers" and behaviorally helpful groups were compared, there was not a one-to-one correspondence between sociometric rating and performance. In fact, many of the subjects who were largely unrated on any dimension were among the most help1'ul, while approximately halt' or the subjects rated as most helpful were actually so. This finding pointed toward a dif1'erentiation of helper "types" (perhaps similar to A-B therapist typologies for adults); indeed, the more visible highly-rated "Type a" helpers were more verbally facile and peer-oriented, whereas unrated helpers (presumably less popular "Type b's" ) were more oriented. toward cooperative behavior vis-a-vis teachers and experimenters. Consequently, this finding indicated that even among the most helpful subjects, different types engaged in different behaviors for different reasons. ·Moreover, the interface between peer popularity, likability, or whatever the peer ratings actually tapped, and helpfulness led to a highly consistent finding: both positively-rated peers (whether helpful or not) and most helpful peers (regardless of sociometric status) demonstrated high adjustment-coping scores on personality measures. Hence, helping may be but another dimension which contributes to psychosocial coping.

Overall, the study demonstrated. the utility of examining relevant characterological dimensions of children as an important step in determining which children are more helpful than others. In addition, the developmental aspect or helping was emphasized. Consequently, a model or helping behavior was forwarded, which postulated that individual characteristics (personality style plus all previous situational/learning history) interact with present-based situational variables to determine helpful behavior for each individual.  

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Helping behavior, Children -- Conduct of life, Child psychology
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