The familiar orange hand started flashing five seconds before I reached the intersection. Normally, I would have crossed, but I hesitated this time. Across the street was a child, and she stopped me with her eyes. She was about 5 years old, holding her mother’s hand and waiting patiently for the walk symbol. All she did was smile at me, yet I could not get my foot off the sidewalk. We looked at each other for the next minute, and when the light indicated that we could cross, we did. The rest of the walk, I kept thinking about her and how I had changed my behavior without our having exchanged a word. How did she do that?
As it turns out, children have a remarkably positive influence on adults. Their mere presence makes us more generous, and for me, apparently, a better rule follower.
Whether or not you are a parent, you have likely experienced this phenomenon of making behavioral adjustments around children. Perhaps you stopped yourself from cursing while seated next to a child, or maybe the squished face of a 3-year-old in the rear window of the car that just cut you off made you smile instead of getting angry at the driver.
While our behavior modification around children is often clear, children can exert their influence without our even knowing it. A recent study demonstrates the power of the mere presence of children when it comes to generosity. Researchers in the United Kingdom collected donations on the street for a blood cancer charity. They recorded who donated and noted the number of adults and children who were present in the area at the time. Donations did not depend on the donor’s gender, whether they were accompanied by a child in their own care, the time of day, or even the weather. The only factor that was correlated with giving was the proportion of children who were generally present, like molecules in the air. Researchers were able to quantify the soft power of children: When there were just as many kids as adults in the area, the frequency of donations was two times higher than when no children at all were present.
At a time when there is a great need worldwide for increased generosity, we may want to think about how we can better integrate and welcome children into our daily lives. These tiny influencers have the unique ability to make us more generous and even better people.
Hasan Merali is a Canadian physician and child health researcher. Follow him on Twitter @Hasan_Merali.