What Parents Do When Children are Good: Parent Reports of Strategies for Reinforcing Early Childhood Prosocial Behaviors


This exploratory study utilized a concurrent triangulation mixed methods design to investigate how parents respond to considerate and engaging forms of children’s prosocial behavior, whether some prosocial behaviors are more likely to receive reinforcement, and whether reinforcement is associated with specific types of prosocial behavior. Parents of 74 preschoolers completed a questionnaire regarding their child’s general prosociality, provided open-ended responses to prosocial vignettes, and completed a questionnaire assessing reinforcement. Open-ended responses showed reinforcement was highly variable across parents and prosocial behaviors. Across open-ended and response-option formats, social reinforcement responses of parent approval, character attributions, and showing love emerged as common reinforcement responses to prosocial behavior, and evidencing similar relationships with comforting and cooperating behaviors. These results suggest that there are multiple ways parents respond to child prosocial behaviors, many of which seem to be attempts to encourage prosociality.

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Correspondence to Alicia A. Bower.

Appendix: Child Behavior Vignettes

Appendix: Child Behavior Vignettes


Your child is playing with a few other children in front of your home, and you are watching them from a window. They are having fun, playing a running game like ‘tag.’ One of the other children trips and falls, and then starts crying. Your child goes to the crying child, helps the other child to sit up, and then sits with the other child until the crying stops.


One day you arrive at your child’s school to pick him/her up. You see your child in the school-yard, where several other children are also playing. You call to your child to hurry. Your child stops playing and starts to run toward you. As your child is running, he/she sees another child who falls off some nearby play equipment. Your child turns and goes toward the other child, and says “Are you okay?” Then your child helps the other child to get up, and stands with the other child.


One day you arrive at your child’s school to pick him/her up. When you walk in you see that your child is with a group of children who are sitting at a table making animals with play-doh. You hear one of the children say that he/she does not have enough play-doh to finish his/her animal. Your child offers some of his/her play-doh to the other child, the child smiles and takes the play-doh and the children continue molding their animals.


Your child is outside with a group of children one day. The children are deciding on a game to play. Your child suggests playing ‘tag’, but the other children would rather play ‘hide-and-go-seek’. Your child mentions that he/she would rather play ‘tag’, but playing ‘hide-and-go-seek’ would be okay too. The children choose who is going to be “it” and begin playing the game.

Defending: Including (1)

One day you arrive at your child’s school to pick him/her up. You see your child in the schoolyard playing ‘tag’ with a group of children. One of the children who had not previously been playing ‘tag’ runs up to the group and asks if he/she can play. One of the children in the group says that they are already playing and he/she can’t join. You hear your child saying that the new child should be able to play. The other children seem to agree and allow the child to join in the game.

Defending: Including (2)

Your child is outside with three other children one day. You look out the window and see that the children are not doing much. Then your child passes a ball to another child, who hands it back to your child. Your child passes the ball to each of the other children, and starts to draw them into a circle. Pretty soon all of the children are involved and having fun, laughing and passing the ball around the circle.

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Bower, A.A., Casas, J.F. What Parents Do When Children are Good: Parent Reports of Strategies for Reinforcing Early Childhood Prosocial Behaviors. J Child Fam Stud 25, 1310–1324 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0293-5

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  • Prosocial behavior
  • Parents/parenting
  • Social learning
  • Reinforcement
  • Parent–child communication
  • Mixed methods