Children who are close to their parents more likely to be kind
The Sector > Research > Children who are close to their parents are more likely to grow up kind and prosocial

Children who are close to their parents are more likely to grow up kind and prosocial

by Freya Lucas

October 11, 2023

Children who have a close and loving relationship with their parents early in life are much more likely to be ‘prosocial,’ and act with kindness and empathy towards others, research from the University of Cambridge has found.


The study used data from more than 10,000 people born between 2000 and 2002 to understand the long-term connection between a child’s early relationship with its parents, prosociality and mental health


It is one of the first studies to look at how these characteristics interact over a long period spanning childhood and adolescence. 


The researchers found that people who experienced warm and loving relationships with their parents at age three years not only tended to have fewer mental health problems during early childhood and adolescence, but also displayed heightened ‘prosocial’ tendencies. 


Being ‘prosocial’ refers to socially desirable behaviors intended to benefit others, such as kindness, empathy, helpfulness, generosity and volunteering.


On average, it found that for every standard unit above ‘normal’ levels that a child’s closeness with their parents was higher at age three years, their prosociality increased by 0.24 of a standard unit by adolescence.


Children whose early parental relationships were emotionally strained or abusive were less likely to develop prosocial habits over time. 


The researchers suggest this strengthens the case for developing targeted policies and support for young families within which establishing close parent-child relationships may not always be straightforward; for example, if parents are struggling with financial and work pressures and do not have much time.


The study also explored how far mental health and prosocial behavior are fixed traits in young people, and how far they fluctuate according to circumstances like changes at school or in personal relationships. It measured both mental health and prosociality at ages 5, 7, 11, 14 and 17 years in order to develop a comprehensive picture of the dynamics shaping these characteristics and how they interact.


The research was undertaken by Ioannis Katsantonis and Dr Ros McLellan, both from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.


“Our analysis showed that after a certain age, we tend to be mentally well, or mentally unwell, and have a reasonably fixed level of resilience. Prosociality varies more and for longer, depending on our environment,” Mr Katsantonis said. 


“A big influence appears to be our early relationship with our parents. As children, we internalise those aspects of our relationships with parents that are characterized by emotion, care and warmth. This affects our future disposition to be kind and helpful towards others.”


As well as being more prosocial, children who had closer relationships with their parents at age three also tended to have fewer symptoms of poor mental health in later childhood and adolescence.


“So much of this comes back to parents,” Mr Katsantonis said. “How much they can spend time with their children and respond to their needs and emotions early in life matters enormously.”


“Some may need help learning how to do that, but we should not underestimate the importance of simply giving them time. Closeness only develops with time, and for parents who are living or working in stressful and constrained circumstances, there often isn’t enough. Policies which address that, at any level, will have many benefits, including enhancing children’s mental resilience and their capacity to act positively towards others later in life.”


Access the study here


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