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

Work Type


Publication Date



Liberal Arts and Sciences


prosocial behavior; parents/parenting; social learning; reinforcement; parent-child communication; mixed methods


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.


This article appears in Volume 25 (pp. 1310-1324) of the Journal of Child and Family Studies.