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Altruism in Children

The clips I studied are studies around children’s behavior and the tendency to be altruistic even at a young age. The first is a video of Felix Warneken, a researcher explaining how altruism evolves over time during a child’s growth from the age of 2 into adulthood (Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, 2014). Felix corrects the widespread misconception that regarding altruism in humans, children start as selfish and receive training through social norms and societal expectations to become altruistic. He states that according to their research and that of others, there is a new consensus that children have certain predispositions towards altruistic behavior, meaning that it does not only take social norms and expectations to instill in children altruistic behavior but that the tendency to intervene in someone’s distress already exists in them (Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, 2014). Their studies reveal that children as young as 14 to 18 months of age demonstrate altruism with practical problem-solving skills.

The second clip is a series of experiments studying children and chimps’ behaviors demonstrating altruism (Johnnyk427, 2010). The children in the experiment are presented with situations where an adult faces a challenge they can solve from their perspective. The challenges range between different difficulty levels requiring the child to devise a solution creatively causing distress to someone else. In one case, the child is presented with a cube that they must roll into one of two pipes. An adult holds a collection can on the opposite end of one pipe, and the child successfully figures out that the cube they have can roll through the pipe in the can on the pipe where the adult has a collecting can (Johnnyk427, 2010). The baby also knows to change the pipe where he puts the cube when the adult moves the collecting can to the next pipe.

The aspects I find interesting in children’s behaviors include the proactive will to relieve someone else’s distress and the ability to understand the challenge and figure out a way to help. The children were very young to have developed speech in the experiments in these second clips. The adults also did not tell the children to assist but simply showed signs of distress by trying to reach out for something or trying an action repeatedly. According to a study by Selda and Feyza, children actively monitor the activities of others, identify errors, and offer correction to mistakes made (Aras & Erden, 2020). They learn from other people’s actions and self-improve in their engagements. In the scene described where a child had to deposit a cube in one of two pipes, at one point, he moved his hand as if to deposit the cube in the wrong pipe. When he noticed the adult did not move the collecting can to his pipe, he corrected himself and deposited the cube in the right pipe.

Selda and Feyza also mention that a child can self-assess (Aras & Erden, 2020). They describe a case in which a child was asked what he was doing, to which he responded correctly. Optimal childhood development depends on the nature of early learning experiences (Halseth & Greenwood, 2019). The experience a child goes through aid in developing literacy skills, self-identity, and esteem, as well as their physical, cognitive, and social growth. Children from a young age have a proactive drive to grow and contribute to their people’s growth. They are not only likely to identify a challenge facing someone, but they are also likely to act altruistically to aid the distressed.


Aras, S., & Erden, F. T. (2020). Documentation panels: Supporting young children’s self-regulatory and metacognitive abilities. International Journal of Early Years Education, 28(1), 63-80.

Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. (2014). Felix Warneken: Precursor to Altruism in Young Children. [Video]. YouTube.

Johnnyk427. (2010). Experiments with altruism in children and chimps. [Video]. YouTube.

Halseth, R., & Greenwood, M. (2019). Indigenous early childhood development in Canada: Current knowledge and future directions. Prince George, BC, Canada: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.


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