The Key to a More Civilized Society? It Might Start with Grandparents - Early Learning Nation

The Key to a More Civilized Society? It Might Start with Grandparents

Looking at contemporary Western society, the conclusion that we’re going to Hell in a handbasket might not seem farfetched. An ethos of sharing, cooperating and helping each other out increasingly seems to be taking a back seat to selfishness, competition and might-makes-right — from the individual level to the global stage. Antisocial behavior hasn’t won out yet, but few could disagree that it’s climbing the charts.

A key to halting that malign ascendency could be found very close to home, especially Latinx homes, recent research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) indicates. “Prosociality in Young Latinx Children: Exploring the Role of Grandparents,” published in the Journal of Latinx Psychology, found that Latinx children living with grandparents at home were more likely to exhibit prosocial, other-oriented behavior than children without grandparents in the home. The findings, the authors write, have broader implications for our understanding of culture, socialization and prosociality.

Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, UW I-LABS Altruism Laboratory

Prosociality refers to behaviors that accommodate or benefit others, voluntary actions such as sharing, comforting, helping and cooperating. In short, the cornerstones of a workable society. For research scientist Dr. Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, the study’s lead author, investigating children’s prosocial behavior is more than an academic exercise, its real-world applications matter to the kind of society we have now and in the future. Barragan’s research seeks to identify the key ingredients for positive outcomes in human development and society.

“Prosociality is key to everyday human civilization,” Barragan says. “Civic society may start with simple actions with children but over the long term, that gets us to a well-functioning society.

“It’s an important goal for scientists to be able to inform the dialogue about how we can have a better, more civilized, courteous society. I’ve been interested in that reality and that’s what drives me to conduct research that’s broadly relevant to everyday social interactions.”

Though prosocial behaviors vary by culture, numerous social theorists have held that Latinx culture is especially adept in this domain. According to previous research cited in this study, Latinx individuals generally prefer to engage and work in settings that emphasize personal harmony and seek to engage in positive conversations and interactions with new people. Latinx people’s graciousness, gregariousness and hospitality are legendary, and those qualities generally begin at home. A series of I-LABS experiments with 19-month-old infants showed that Latinx infants shared more objects of personal value with strangers than non-Latinx white infants, indicating that the enculturation of prosociality may start at “surprisingly early ages,” the researchers wrote.

A solid body of research has looked at children’s prosocial learning from their parents, but little has been done to examine the connection between grandparents and young children’s prosociality, including Latinx grandparents. What is known about Latinx grandparents is their connection to cultural values such as simpatía, or relational harmony; familismo, an emphasis on supporting and nurturing all members of a family; and respeto, deference and respect toward others, all of which are likely to be emphasized in their interactions with grandchildren. These prosocial behaviors can have a significant effect on children in an academic setting, and previous research has shown that Latinx children with grandparents at home do better academically and emotionally than kids without grandparents at home.

To test the idea that Latinx grandparents’ presence in their grandchildren’s homes puts them in a prime position to influence prosocial values, the researchers conducted their study in Los Angeles County, which has the largest Latinx population of any U.S. county. The children in L.A. County are often children and grandchildren of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, and a pilot study found that approximately 50 percent of the young Latinx children in the region’s parks lived with grandparents at home. The researchers focused on 4- and 5-year-olds because at these ages children are less influenced by the formal education system and are considered old enough to engage in verbal interactions with researchers.

The pilot study took place in 2019 and ground to a halt along with most other public life when the pandemic hit in early 2020. By the time the study started again once vaccinations became available, researchers observed that the percentage of live-in grandparents had been reduced to about 33 percent — likely reflecting the fact that COVID-19 had hit the older U.S. population hardest. A national analysis found that Latinx children had nearly twice the risk of experiencing a grandparent’s death during the pandemic compared to non-Latinx white children.

Still, the researchers were able to carry out their study with 250 young Latinx children and their families, which Barragan says is the largest—“almost unheard of”—sample of children of this population on a behavioral test. They conducted the study in public parks because they wanted to take it out of the constrained environment of the behavior lab and into the community. Testing sessions were conducted in the mid-to late-afternoon when the parks had many families with young children and a recreational atmosphere prevailed. On some days, the parks were hosting COVID-19 vaccination drives.

For the study, young children were invited to play a “sticker game” on a preprinted sheet of paper divided into two sides. One side gave the child the choice of getting a small smiley-face sticker for themselves, and another child represented by a silhouette would also get a sticker. The other side gave the child the choice to take a sticker for themselves only, with the other child getting none. The study indicated that children with a grandparent in the home were almost twice as likely to make the prosocial choice of giving another sticker to the other child as were the children without a grandparent at home.

The researchers theorize that the grandparents may be transmitting these prosocial behaviors by verbally encouraging helpfulness and communicating the complex web of Latinx social values during mealtimes, while taking walks with the children and through daily interactions with others. The grandparents’ own behavior and the “imitative abilities of young children” may also serve to model these prosocial attitudes and behaviors. The precise ways in which this occurs, and if there’s any difference between the influence of grandmothers in the home versus grandfathers remain questions for future studies, Barragan says.

“We’re going to need more research on some of these questions because one limitation of our studies is that we had to be quick because of COVID and weren’t able to get as much information as we would have liked,” he says.

The researchers write that the current findings underscore the desirability of examining the grandparent-grandchild prosociability link in other groups beyond the Latinx community, such as African American families, and in Native American and Asian American communities, all of which have strong but distinct familial values and frequent involvement of grandparents in childrearing.

“Even though this study was focused on a particular population, it’s really important to extrapolate (to our larger society),” Barragan says. “This study teaches us about the importance of how grandparenting can be important in a culture that’s perhaps more traditional than contemporary mainstream American culture. It teaches us about different ways of being and the diversity of our community.

“And it teaches us that by looking into different communities, we can learn about human psychology in ways that inform our approach. It’s about being open to new ideas and new ways of seeing things.”

Prosociality in Young Latinx Children: Exploring the Role of Grandparents authors: Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, Rechele Brooks, Elizabeth A. Sanders, and Andrew N. Meltzoff, all with the University of Washington.


Grandmothers: the Bedrock of Human Evolution: Dr Kristen Hawkes’ groundbreaking research on grandmothers

Babies Are Surprisingly Altruistic—another of Dr. Cortes Barragan’s studies on the prosocial behavior of small children

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

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