Childhood and Youth

Are kids helpful and, if so why?

In this article David Lancy, author of Anthropological Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers and series editor of Palgrave Studies on the Anthropology of Childhood and Youth, discusses research into whether children are innately helpful, and if so, why.

A robust tradition in anthropology, dating at least to Margaret Mead’s (1928/1961) Coming of Age in Samoa, calls attention to the culture–bound flaw in psychol­ogy. Mead’s work undermined the claim by psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1904) that stress was inevitably part of adolescence. Another sacred cow slain by anthropologists has been “parenting style” the­ory (Baumrind 1971). Central African Bofi farmers fit the so–called “authoritar­ian” parenting style in valuing respect and obedience and exercising coercive control over their children. According to the theory, Bofi children should be withdrawn, non–empathetic, aggressive, and lack initiative. In fact, they display precisely the opposite set of traits, and Fouts concludes that the theory may work when applied to Americans, but “it has very little explanatory power among the Bofi (2005: 361).” I could quickly cite many similar examples of anthropologists “exercising] their veto (LeVine 2007: 250).”

This view that many well–established theoretical positions in psychology can not be as widely generalized as their authors claim was given a boost by a carefully argued paper published in 2010. Joe Henrich and colleagues challenged the very foundations of the discipline in arguing that psychologists fail to account for the influence of culture or nurture on human behavior. From a large–scale survey, they determined that the vast majority of research in psychology is carried out with citizens—especially college students—of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies (WEIRD). They note that, where comparative data are available, “people in [WEIRD] societies consistently occupy the extreme end of the…distribution [making them] one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens (Henrich et al 2010: 63, 65, 79).”

But this short essay reports on a case study (Lancy 2018) of a phenomenon identified in WEIRD Lab research which can be shown to be universal—characteristic of the species and not just WEIRD children. I’m referring to an extremely successful research program undertaken by Felix Warneken (2015) and colleagues. They have conducted numerous studies with widely varied conditions. Broadly speaking, they find that in every study with 14-30-month-old children, every subject volunteered to help even under trying conditions. They forego play with new toys and navigate around obstacles in their eagerness to help. Helpers were not guided by adults, encouraged by parents or rewarded. In fact, offering rewards diminished their altruism. By 24 months, children are able to determine when and how they might help, often seeing a problem before the prospective beneficiary of their aid. This suggests that the child as helper is a characteristic of the species.

When we turn to the ethnographic record, we can find volumes of results wholly supportive of this position. A tiny sample follows:

—  Among Mayo [Mexico] villagers, little girls target their mother’s task inventory, selecting one within their capacity, like bringing water from the arroyo - “a little girl begs to undertake new tasks (Erasmus 1955: 331)."

—  During the rice harvest season, whole (Taira) families are involved. “Even a little child…stands by gloomily until an adult hands him a small bundle of sheaves to  carry to the threshers (T. Maretzki and H. Maretzki 1963: 510).”  

—  “Mixtecan [Mexico] children are happy when they’re performing ‘little tasks’ for adults (K. Romney and R. Romney 1963: 573).”

—  Little Talensi (Ghana) boys are said to possess “a passionate desire to raise a hen (Fortes 1938/1970: 20).”

Not only are descriptions of helping ubiquitous but—excepting WEIRD society—I know of no society where proffers of assistance from toddlers are routinely spurned. There may be some resistance when children are too noisy, too clumsy, too weak or, too unreliable to undertake a particular task. But, generally speaking, helpers are welcome. For example, Laura Rival notes from the Huaorani forest foragers that:

“Nothing is more cheering for a parent than a three-year-old’s decision to join a food gathering expedition. The child carries his/her own oto (basket)…and brings it back to the longhouse filled with forest products to ‘give away,’ that is, to share with co-residents (Rival 2000, p. 116).”

So what’s in it for the kids? Only a precis can be offered here. First, unlike WEIRD society where children are practically idolized, the village child, in order to be accepted as a person—as opposed to a helpless infant—must demonstrate their ability to fit-in, to make a contribution to the family. Second, the spontaneous emergence of helping is an essential component of becoming a skilled collaborator. And the human ability to collaborate in a wide variety of enterprises has been credited with the success of our species. Another clear benefit of the compunction to pitch-in and be helpful—completely omitted from theories of helping in Psychology—is that it is through helping and, by extension, collaboration, that children learn their culture. In pre-modern society, instruction of any kind is largely absent (Lancy 2016). It is expensive from a fitness perspective because a mature, highly productive individual has to reduce their output in order to take on the role of instructor. So, if children want to learn practical skills, and they clearly do, their only option is to “learn on the job (Paradise and Rogoff 2009).”

Discovering that children have a “helper gene” is good news right? But, there’s a catch. There have been numerous ethnographic studies across a range of WEIRD societies indicating that, in the absence of careful cultivation, WEIRD kids become quite resistant to appeals for help by as early as five (Ochs and Izquierdo 2009). This happens, I would argue, because, unlike pre-modern families who value, encourage and shape young helpers into competent and reliable “workers,” WEIRD parents tend to spurn the toddler’s offer to help—to “protect” the child, to do housework more efficiently, or to re-redirect the child to play or schoolwork. Whatever the motive, the child’s need to be helpful is thwarted and, eventually, extinguished. And we end up with unhelpful “spoiled” children.

David F. Lancy is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Utah State University, USA.


Baumrind, Diana (1971) Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs 4(1, pt 2): 1–103.

Erasmus, Charles J. (1955) Work Patterns in a Mayo Village. American Anthropologist, 57: 322–333.

Fortes, Meyer (1938/1970) Social and Psychological Aspects of Education in Taleland. In John Middleton (Ed.), From Child to Adult: Studies in the Anthropology of Education. (pp. 14–74) Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press.

Fouts, Hilary (2005) Families in Central Africa: A comparison of Bofi farmer and forager families. In Jaipaul L. Roopnarine and Uwe P. Gielen (Eds.), Families in Global Perspective. pp. 347–363. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Hall, G. Stanley (1904) Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Henrich, Joseph, Heine, Stephen J., and Norenzayan, Ara (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences 33: 61–81.

Lancy, David F. (2016) Teaching: Natural or cultural? In Evolutionary Perspectives on

Education and Child Development. Dan Berch and David Geary (Eds) (Pp 32-65), Heidelberg, DE: Springer.

Lancy, David F. (2018) Children as Helpers: Evidence for a Universal Stage in Human Life History. Keynote Address, Society for Cross-Cultural Research Annual Meeting, Las Vegas, February 23rd

LeVine, Robert A. (2007) Ethnographic studies of childhood: A historical overview. American Anthropologist, 109: 247-260.

Maretzki, Thomas W. Maretzki, Hatsumi (1963) Taira: an Okinawan village. In Whiting, Beatrice B. (Ed.), Six cultures: studies of child rearing. (pp 363–539) New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Mead, Margaret (1928/1961) Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: New American Library.

Ochs, Elinor and Izquierdo, Carolina (2009) Responsibility in childhood: Three developmental trajectories. Ethos 37: 391–413.

Paradise, Ruth and Rogoff, Barbara (2009) Side by side: Learning by observing and pitching in. Ethos. 37: 102-138.

Rival, Laura (2000) Formal schooling and the production of modern citizens in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In Bradley A.U. Levinson (Ed.), Schooling the Symbolic Animal: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Education. (pp.108-122) Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield.

Romney, A. Kimball and Romney, Romaine (1963) The Mixtecans of Juxtlahuaca, Mexico. In Whiting, Beatrice Blyth. (Ed.). Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing (pp. 541-691) New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Warneken, Felix 2015. Precocious prosociality; Why do young children help? Child Development  Perspectives, 9(1): 1-6

David F. Lancy, author of Anthropological Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans and Laborers. New York: Palgrave 2018 is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University.