The Key To Raising Helpful, Empathetic Kids Lies Entirely With The Parents

Raising a good citizen of the world is as simple as spending time with your child.

Originally Published: 
A dad holding his smiling toddler in their home.

Every parent wants to raise a child who’s kind, helpful, and generally an upstanding member of society. A new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge shows that there’s an easy way to do it: It finds that young children who have close relationships with their parents are more likely to display certain socially desirable behaviors when they reach adolescence.

The study is one of the first to examine how early parent-child relationships affect prosocial behaviors and mental health as kids grow up. Using data from more than 10,000 people born between 2000 and 2002, and following them for more than a decade, the researchers found that children who experienced warm and caring relationships with their parents at age 3 more frequently displayed behaviors intended to benefit others, such as empathy, generosity, helpfulness, and kindness, through age 17.

In contrast, children who experienced emotionally strained or abusive relationships with their parents were less likely to develop prosocial habits over time. They also tended to more frequently experience signs of depression and anxiety during early childhood and adolescence.

“So much of this comes back to parents,” study co-author Ioannis Katsantonis, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in a press release. “How much they can spend time with their children and respond to their needs and emotions early in life matters enormously.”

For the study, the researchers first gathered survey data about prosociality, internal mental health symptoms that indicate depression and anxiety, and external signs of mental health struggles such as aggression. They then gathered information about how participants characterized their relationships with their parents regarding closeness, emotional conflict, and maltreatment while also taking into account factors such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The team then used a complex statistical analysis to gauge the extent to which mental health and prosocial behavior traits fluctuate over childhood, especially in relation to the supportiveness of the people a child is closest to and potentially disruptive life events like switching schools. This allowed them to determine the extent to which traits such as behavioral anxiety were a function of a child being naturally anxious and how much that trait was a result of lived experience and life circumstances.

And it turns out that mental health and traits like empathy and helpfulness are connected to how strong a relationship kids have with their parents.

In light of these connections, the study authors suggest the importance of developing targeted policies and support for young parents who struggle financially or experience higher than typical work stressors, as these factors can adversely affect how much quality time they can spend with their children. Paid sick and family leave, universal pre-K, subsidized child care, and aligning school days and workdays are just some of the policies highlighted in a recent report from the Brookings Institute that could help working parents achieve a better balance between work and family life.

“Closeness only develops with time, and for parents who are living or working in stressful and constrained circumstances, there often isn’t enough,” Katsantonis said. “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.”

Although the sizable associations found in the study still need to be verified through further research, they’re yet another sign pointing to the need for increased parental support. Certainly, because it’s in the best interest of children, and now also because it appears as though these changes will help raise kids who can better contribute to a healthier society.

It’s understandable for time-poor parents to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of improving their connection with their kids, even if they have a strong desire to do so. Luckily, as previously reported by Fatherly, simple steps can improve connectedness, such as putting your phone down for 10 minutes while allowing your child to direct play, apologizing for mistakes, and taking brief moments for silliness.

This article was originally published on