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The Developmental Roots of Social Responsibility in Childhood and Adolescence

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The Developmental Roots of Social Responsibility in Childhood and Adolescence

Abstract

Social responsibility is a value orientation, rooted in democratic relationships with others and moral principles of care and justice, that motivates certain civic actions. Given its relevance for building stronger relationships and communities, the development of social responsibility within individuals should be a more concerted focus for developmental scholars and youth practitioners. During childhood and adolescence, the developmental roots of individuals' social responsibility lie in the growth of executive function, empathy and emotion regulation, and identity. Efforts to cultivate children and adolescents' social responsibility in the proximal settings of their everyday lives should emphasize modeling prosocial behaviors, communicating concerns for others, and creating opportunities to practice civic skills.
The Developmental Roots of Social Responsibility in Childhood and Adolescence
Laura Wray-Lake
Claremont Graduate University
Amy K. Syvertsen
Search Institute
APA Style Citation
Wray-Lake, L., & Syvertsen, A. (2011). The developmental roots of social responsibility in
childhood and adolescence. In C. Flanagan & B. Christens (Eds.), Youth development:
Work at the cutting edge. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 134,
11-25. doi: 10.1002/cd.308
*Note: The final typeset version may differ slightly from this pre-print.
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Abstract
Social responsibility is a value orientation, rooted in democratic relationships with others and
moral principles of care and justice, that motivates certain civic actions. Given its relevance for
building stronger relationships and communities, the development of social responsibility within
individuals should be a more concerted focus for developmental scholars and youth practitioners.
During childhood and adolescence, the developmental roots of individuals’ social responsibility
lie in the growth of executive function, empathy and emotion regulation, and identity. Efforts to
cultivate children and adolescentssocial responsibility in the proximal settings of their everyday
lives should emphasize modeling prosocial behaviors, communicating concerns for others, and
creating opportunities to practice civic skills.
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The Developmental Roots of Social Responsibility in Childhood and Adolescence
Children and adolescents are capable of making positive contributions to society, and
developmental experiences during this time also set the stage for citizenship across the lifespan.
Social responsibility, a sense of duty or obligation to contribute to the greater good, is a personal
value that manifests itself in our beliefs and the way we live with others (Berman, 1997; Gallay,
2006; Kohlberg & Candee, 1984). In developmental science, social responsibility conceptually
overlaps with a range of constructs such as moral development, empathy, altruism, and prosocial
values and behaviors. Responsibility implies feeling accountable for one’s decisions and actions,
reliable and dependable to others, and empowered to act on issues within one’s control. As such,
socially responsible individuals are active agents in their development, imbued with a duty to act
on moral and prosocial grounds. As an outgrowth of the already rich literatures on prosocial,
moral, cognitive, and identity development, social responsibility is at the cutting edge of
developmental science because of its emphasis on responsibility and direct implications for
positive social change through the cultivation of values and actions.
To be intentional about cultivating social responsibility within individuals, we first need
to know what it is and how it develops. In this chapter, we focus on personal and environmental
characteristics in childhood and adolescence that undergird the promotion of social
responsibility. Our aims are three-fold. First, we define social responsibility in terms of
development while emphasizing core elements that are shared across theoretical traditions.
Second, grounded in a developmental perspective, we seek to identify aspects of childhood and
adolescence that represent opportunities for growth in social responsibility. Third, we turn to
contexts, focusing on the proximal settings of youth’s everyday lives that encourage social
responsibility.
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Defining Social Responsibility
Social responsibility is a concept used across the fields of business, economics, political
science, and positive psychology. Across disciplines, social responsibility is defined as reflecting
concerns that extend beyond personal wants, needs, or gains (Gallay, 2006). Adopting a
developmental lens, we consider social responsibility to be a value orientation that motivates
individuals’ prosocial, moral, and civic behaviors. Relationships with others and a moral sense of
care and justice are central to our definition of social responsibility.
Social Responsibility as a Value
Values are broad personal priorities, with a cognitive as well as an emotional component,
that guide specific beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. As a core aspect of the self, values give
coherence to personal identities and make actions more purposeful (Hitlin, 2003). Social
responsibility traverses the value types of universalism (e.g., justice) and benevolence (e.g.,
helping close others) that both fall under the broader value dimension of self-transcendence
(Schwartz, 1992). Thus, framed as a value, social responsibility offers important insights into
how individuals view themselves in relation to others, where “others” can be broadly extended to
the welfare of unknown others, society, other species, and the environment or refer more locally
to caring for friends and family.
Social responsibility values are expected to motivate a person’s behaviors that involve
helping others and contributing to society. For example, values prioritizing the greater good have
been positively associated with community service (Pratt, Hunsberger, Pancer, & Alisat, 2003),
pro-environmental behaviors (Verplanken & Holland, 2002), and political activism (Mayton &
Furnham, 1994). Civic engagement can have myriad motivations, but in accordance with current
conceptualizations (Zaff, Boyd, Li, Lerner, & Lerner, 2010), we argue that only those civic
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actions motivated by care and justice fall under the umbrella of social responsibility.
Furthermore, a person’s civic behaviors and social responsibility are mutually influential: Just as
social responsibility may provoke civic action, certain kinds of civic actions may enhance social
responsibility. Yet, values do not always lead to action. Numerous obstacles prevent youth from
acting on social responsibility, such as time constraints, stress related to meeting one’s own basic
needs, social norms that emphasize competition rather than concern for others, or lack of
opportunity. These obstacles should be addressed, where possible, to enable equal opportunity
for exercising social responsibility regardless of one’s situation or social background.
Relationships with Others
Humans have a fundamental need to belong to something larger than themselves
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Likewise, one’s social responsibility is rooted in relationships with
others, meaning that individuals must feel connected to others and see oneself as part of a larger
entity before their responsibility extends beyond the self. When supported by others, growing
autonomy during adolescence can also foster social responsibility, as autonomy entails having
agency to act on one’s values. When people identify with a group, they are more inclined to
forego self-interests to benefit others and come to the aid of group members (see Syvertsen,
Flanagan, & Stout, 2009). Common bonds established in social relationships engender feelings
of reciprocity to contribute to one’s community and beyond.
Reciprocity is more likely when relationships are founded on mutual respect and trust.
When young people feel like they have equal membership and rights within a group and that
their voices are heard, they are more likely to feel responsible for their community and society
writ large (Flanagan, Cumsille, Gill, & Gallay, 2007). Trust in humanity is a developmental
foundation for social responsibility and can prompt civic contributions (Flanagan, 2003). In other
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words, certain kinds of relationships – rooted in equality, mutual respect for opinions, and trust –
breed social responsibility. The extent to which social responsibility broadens to include
unknown others may depend on trust and experiences in interactions with diverse others.
Morality: Care and Justice
Moral principles of care and justice are central to social responsibility (Berman, 1997).
When considered in concert, these principles allow individuals to balance compassion for those
in need with concerns of fairness and equality (Gilligan, 1982) – a combination that reflects the
emotional (e.g., empathy, compassion) and cognitive (e.g., justice reasoning) components of
social responsibility. Caring and justice are distinct, but compatible principles.
Social responsibility overlaps with developmental constructs like altruism, prosocial
behavior, and care reasoning. The core component of these concepts is a concern for others.
Many character education programs advance a care perspective of social responsibility through
emphasis on compassion, prosocial skills, and integrity; such curricula tend to cultivate citizens
who obey laws, donate to a cause when asked, or volunteer to help people in need (Westheimer
& Kahne, 2004). Thus, a care orientation without a justice lens may result in social responsibility
that reflects loyalty and obedience.
Compared to caring, justice is perhaps a more complex moral principle as it entails
reasoning about fairness in how resources and punishments should be allocated. Cognitive
developmental theory suggests that moral reasoning parallels cognitive development, with
reasoning about justice and rights becoming increasingly complex and abstract with age
(Kohlberg, 1981). Though the concept is not explicitly political, social responsibility may be a
developmental foundation for political views and actions (Flanagan & Tucker, 1999), and a
justice orientation may be the link that connects social responsibility to the political realm. For
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example, youth in the United Students Against Sweatshops organization engage in protests for
fair labor laws across the globe, a goal that entails little personal gain for students themselves
(Ballinger, 2006). From a liberation psychology perspective, social responsibility involves
promoting social justice and challenging oppressive power structures (Watts & Flanagan, 2007).
Given that a justice orientation entails an understanding that people are entitled to certain rights
and should be treated accordingly, social responsibility may go beyond loyalty and obedience
and evoke a drive to challenge injustice.
Development in Childhood and Adolescence
Social responsibility is a prosocial value orientation, rooted in democratic relationships
with others and moral principles of care and justice, that motivates a range of civic actions. This
integrated definition of social responsibility sets the stage for examining relevant developmental
domains that shape social responsibility. We highlight several aspects of emotional, cognitive,
and identity development that may precede or coincide with social responsibility development
across childhood and adolescence.
Emotional Development
Empathy is an affective response to another person’s situation (Hoffman, 2000).
Becoming less ego-focused and more other-focused over time, empathy starts out as biased
towards others who are proximal and similar to oneself and gradually expands to unfamiliar
others and abstract individuals and groups (Eisenberg et al., 2006). Importantly, when moral
principles are combined with activation of empathy, empathy-based arousal becomes less biased
toward familiar others and extends more broadly to unfamiliar others (Hoffman, 2000). As
empathy is an emotional foundation of caring for others, it may be the earliest developing
precursor of social responsibility.
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Empathy-related responding is associated with prosocial and altruistic behavior (Batson,
Ahmed, & Stocks, 2004), yet personal distress in reaction to another’s situation is not
(Eisenberg, 2000). Thus, emotion regulation may also be an important developmental precursor
for social responsibility. The link between emotion regulation and social responsibility is logical,
as engaging in prosocial behavior often requires controlling one’s own negative emotions while
also helping others to regulate theirs. Empathy over-arousal could lead to less concern for others,
as over-arousal can transfer into personal emotional distress (Hoffman, 2000). People with
adaptive emotion regulation skills may be more likely to turn empathetic responding into
addressing others’ needs rather than turning feelings inward and reacting through personal
distress. With emotion regulation skills in place, youth may be able to harness their passions in
service of a social cause (see Hart, Atkins, & Fegley, 2003). Thus, empathy and emotion
regulation may be key developmental foundations of social responsibility. However, given that
values are part cognition and part emotion, emotions alone cannot explain social responsibility.
Cognitive Development
Executive functioning skills are theorized to be childhood precursors of social
responsibility. Drawing from writing on civic engagement, three primary components of
executive function may be useful for understanding social responsibility – inhibition, working
memory, and cognitive flexibility (Astuto & Ruck, 2010). Executive function has been shown to
enhance social behaviors and learning environments in childhood, which may promote prosocial
behaviors and civic engagement.
Inhibition is the ability to forego desires in favor of higher-order goals; for example,
children may give money to help someone else instead of buying something for themselves. This
cognitive skill relates to emotion regulation, as inhibition of one’s own emotions allows
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individuals to consider the needs of others (Eisenberg, 2000). Working memory entails the
ability to actively retain relevant information for reasoning, learning, and manipulation of
complex concepts (Astuto & Ruck, 2010). The capacity for abstract-thinking, necessary for
conceptualizing values, typically develops during adolescence and relies on working memory.
Thus, increasing information processing and abstract-thinking abilities deepens adolescents’
capacities to adopt a socially responsibile orientation. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to alter
one’s perspective and adapt to changing environmental demands (Astuto & Ruck, 2010). The
related concept of perspective-taking, which develops across childhood and adolescence,
requires advanced cognitive processing and can evoke empathetic arousal and enhance prosocial
behaviors (Hoffman, 2000). Perspective-taking also enables children and adolescents to consider
the social contexts of moral decisions (Smetana & Villalobos, 2009). As social responsibility is
inherently linked to interpersonal relationships, the ability to view the world from multiple
vantage points enables young people to formulate personal obligations to exhibit care and justice.
More broadly, increases in social-cognitive capacities for reasoning about morality and
responsibility have been documented across adolescence (Smetana & Villalobos, 2009). With
age and maturity, prosocial reasoning recognizes that behaviors are intrinsically motivated by
values and goals rather than based on external rewards (Mussen & Eisenberg, 2001). Similarly,
compared to younger adolescents, older adolescents are more likely to say that moral values and
social responsibility are the basis for their prosocial behaviors (Carlo, Eisenberg, & Knight,
1992). An understanding of rights and democratic decision-making develops in middle
childhood, and perhaps even earlier (Helwig, Arnold, Tan, & Boyd, 2007). Thus, a certain
amalgam of cognitive skills set the stage for social responsibility. Programs and policies already
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designed to enhance executive function or moral reasoning may have positive benefits for the
cultivation of social responsibility.
Self and Identity Development
Self and identity development is central to understanding social responsibility for at least
two reasons. First, as noted, social responsibility is a value, and values unify personal identities
(Hitlin, 2003). Therefore, social responsibility can offer insights into current and future selves.
Second, social responsibility is fulfilling to the self (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). By
implication, social responsibility is not solely altruistic, and approaches to social responsibility
recognize that individuals can receive personal gains when contributing to the greater good.
Self-concept takes shape in childhood and precedes identity formation in adolescence
(Côté, 2009); indeed, the ability to distinguish between self and other is a universal human
cognition that starts developing very early in life (Hart & Fegley, 1997). Cross-cultural work
suggests that societies socialize an emphasis on an interdependent or an independent self
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991), concepts similar to the personal value orientations of self-
transcendence versus self-enhancement (Schwartz, 1992). The way children and adolescents
think about themselves in relation to others is important for social responsibility, which entails
striking a balance between needs of self and others.
A key component of identity development is exploration (Erikson, 1968). Adolescence is
characterized by exploring moral commitments, views about the world, and relationships with
others (Flanagan, 2004). As adolescents “try on” identities to discover what gives them meaning
in life, some may volunteer to help others, join a community group, or take up social causes. In
fact, volunteering is increasingly common among adolescents, particularly among those from
more privileged social classes, likely because they have more opportunities for civic engagement
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and identity exploration (Syvertsen, Wray-Lake, Briddell, Flanagan, & Osgood, 2011). A study
of adolescents displaying exemplary care and community involvement illustrated that, compared
with a matched sample, care exemplars endorsed more moral characteristics as part of the self
and viewed their identity as more consistent and coherent (Hart & Fegley, 1995). Thus, social
responsibility may arise out of processes of consolidating identities.
Seedbeds of Social Responsibility: Families, Peers, Schools, and Communities
Social responsibility germinates in the intimate relationships and settings that structure
young people’s daily lives. Some contexts do a better job than others of inculcating social
responsibility by encouraging individuals to consider the implications of their actions on others
and express concerns in self-transcendent ways. In these ways and others, families, peers,
schools, and communities can create opportunities to socialize social responsibility in children
and adolescents.
Ecological systems and social capital theories provide a strong theoretical basis for
prioritizing the role of contexts in the development of social responsibility. An ecological
systems perspective recognizes that development does not happen in a vacuum but rather in
relationships, homes, schools, and neighborhoods (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Young
people’s internal developmental capacities are bidirectionally associated with these proximal
contexts; thus, fostering social responsibility requires focusing on children and adolescents’
emotional, cognitive, and identity development and cultivating proximal contexts that prime
social responsibility. Likewise, according to social capital theory, reciprocal social relationships
set the stage for individuals to collectively resolve social problems, cultivate feelings of trust,
and amplify awareness that actions have implications for others (Putnam, 2000). Social capital is
not always inclusive, however. Bonding social capital (existing in close ties with immediate
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family, friends, and neighbors) is more likely than bridging social capital (characterizing more
casual relationships) to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups (Putnam, 2000).
From a developmental perspective, we posit that bonding social capital is normative during early
and middle childhood when young people spend considerable time with family and have limited
opportunities for sustained interactions with others. However, bridging social capital should
become increasingly possible during adolescence as young people become more autonomous and
have increased opportunities to interact with more diverse others. Although both forms of social
capital have developmental benefits, bridging social capital may lay the foundation for social
responsibility based on universalism rather than benevolence.
Mechanisms for Cultivating Social Responsibility
A review of research reveals that common mechanisms may operate to promote social
responsibility across the proximal contexts of families, peers, schools, and communities. These
mechanisms include modeling prosocial behaviors, communicating value socialization messages,
and providing opportunities to practice socially responsible behaviors.
Modeling prosocial behaviors. In infancy and early childhood, parents are most often
the reigning role models. As children enroll in school, become increasingly invested in
friendships, and participate in community activities, the pool of potential role models widens
beyond immediate and extended family to include peers, teachers, youth leaders, and other
adults. Bridging social capital can take root in these relationships. In accordance with social
learning theory (Bandura, 1977), the more opportunities young people have to witness others
acting in socially responsible ways (e.g., recycling, standing up for a peer who is treated
unfairly) and modeling emotions such as empathy, the more likely they are to mirror these
actions (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989). To the extent that modeled behaviors are repeated and
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perceived as resulting in favorable outcomes, they are more likely to be internalized in behavior
and identity.
Drawing from the civic literature, we know that parent civic engagement is a strong
predictor of youth civic engagement. For example, children whose parents regularly model civic
engagement and democratic political discussion are more likely to be politically active (Verba,
Burns, & Schlozman, 2003). The same type of behavioral modeling can occur in schools. When
educators model democratic practices, by encouraging deliberative dialogue and creating an open
classroom climate, students are more inclined to engage in civic activities and make informed
decisions about which elected officials to support (Campbell, 2008; Torney-Purta, 2002), both
expressions of social responsibility. To the extent that behavior communicates values, modeling
can be considered one mechanism for socializing values of social responsibility; another
mechanism is explicit communication of value messages.
Value socialization messages. Parents communicate explicit value messages to children
in daily interactions (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). Verbal communication is an important strategy
for teaching values because parents may aspire to instill values that differ from the ones they
hold for themselves or directly model. Given that socialization strategies may differ depending
on the content of values being socialized (Grusec, Goodnow, & Kuczynski, 2000), processes of
socializing social responsibility may be unique from strategies to socialize other values such as
self-enhancement.
Parents use various value socialization strategies to promote social responsibility,
including communicating compassion and disciplinary messages. Direct efforts to socialize
compassion and sensitize children to the needs of others have been positively associated with
adolescents’ social responsibility (Wray-Lake, 2010) as well as related constructs of moral
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reasoning (Pratt, Skoe, & Arnold, 2004) and social views about others (Flanagan & Tucker,
1999). Disciplinary encounters between parents and children also offer opportunities to
communicate values and scaffold moral development (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). When parents
use inductive strategies to point out the victim’s perspective during a disciplinary conversation,
young people can more easily see connections between their behavior and harm to others
(Hoffman, 2000). Teachers similarly encourage social responsibility when, for example, they
admonish inappropriate (or, affirm appropriate) behavior by pointing out how a student’s actions
affect their classmates. As implied by these mechanisms, communicating compassion messages
and using inductive reasoning may prompt young people to internalize social responsibility
through the activation of empathetic concern.
Just as value messages can promote socially responsible values, so too can they erode
them. For example, schools that heavily emphasize merit and competition among students often
do so at the cost of promoting justice and caring (Hoffman, 2000). The role of value
communication in cultivating social responsibility is important to study further because these
messages are often implicitly embedded in cultural practices (e.g., expectations, pedagogical
methods) rather than being formally taught.
Opportunities to practice. Practice can help young people enhance perspective-taking
abilities, spur further identity development, and build self-efficacy in the civic arena. Self-
efficacy is particularly important as responsibility without agency rarely translates into action,
thereby contributing little to the greater good (Youniss & Yates, 1997). Three contexts that
provide rich opportunities to practice social responsibility are peer relationships, school and
activity settings, and community service.
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Outside of parent-child bonds, peers represent the first “others” with whom many young
people form relationships. In friendships, young people learn how to balance interests of self and
others as they work out what it means to care for others and maintain healthy relationships
(Syvertsen & Flanagan, 2006). Unlike youth-adult relationships, peer relationships tend to be
more egalitarian, making it both more necessary and more comfortable for young people to
engage in perspective-taking and conflict resolution. These skills can advance moral
development (Eisenberg et al., 2006). Friendships are also important gateways to developing
social responsibility through service activities (Syvertsen & Flanagan, 2006); having
companionship and peer support in trying out new activities may motivate youth to encourage
friends to participate in school and community activities.
Schools often operate like mini-polities where young people experience democratic
participation and learn what it means to be a community member. Schools characterized by a
climate of care and openness are ideal training grounds for learning and practicing important
civic skills like articulating and defending political opinions and understanding the rights and
responsibilities inherent in group membership. Many school- and community-based
extracurricular activities also cultivate social responsibility by fostering a sense of social
relatedness and encouraging teamwork whereby youth are expected (by peers and adult leaders,
alike) to fulfill certain commitments to the group. Controlling for a host of other factors,
participation in extracurricular activities during adolescence has been positively linked with both
service to others and voting in young adulthood (Hart, Donnelly, Youniss, & Atkins, 2007).
Thus, school and afterschool settings can enrich young people’s democratic experiences, which
in turn may foster growth in social responsibility.
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Service to others – whether through service-learning, an organization, or on one’s own –
is instrumental in cultivating social responsibility. In their in-depth case study of adolescents’
service at a homeless shelter, Youniss and Yates (1997) detail the breadth of transformations
young people can undergo when they lend their time, companionship, and skills to improving the
lives of others. When paired with critical reflection, service can be a powerful mechanism for
breaking down stereotypes about others, transcending one’s own needs and social station, and
developing other-oriented aspects of one’s identity (Johnson, Beebe, Mortimer, & Snyder, 1998).
Quasi-experimental studies comparing youth in service-learning programs with non-participating
peers showed that participation in service positively predicted youth’s social responsibility and
future civic commitments (e.g., Scales, Blyth, Berkas, & Kielsmeier, 2000). Service provides a
forum to display empathetic concern, refine cognitive abilities, and reflect on social issues,
processes which develop a richer ethic of social responsibility.
Importantly, not all young people are afforded equal opportunities to engage in
experiences that enable socialization and practice of social responsibility. Historical data show a
persistent gap in political participation based on socioeconomic status (Verba et al., 2003), and
some evidence suggests that the gap may be growing among youth (Syvertsen et al., 2011). The
intergenerational transmission of class advantage in America makes it difficult for children of
less educated and less civically engaged parents and those living in poor communities to access
the adult role models, quality school programs, and community-based youth organizations
important for social responsibility promotion (Verba et al., 2003). For example, service-learning
is not offered equally to all students, with the disadvantage shouldered by students not bound for
college (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). It is incumbent on researchers, policy makers, community
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leaders, teachers, and other adults who actively work with youth to consider ways to rectify these
inequalities so that more voices are represented in the democratic process.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Social responsibility is consolidated during adolescence when cognitive, emotional, and
identity development converges with exposure to modeling, value messages, and opportunities
for practice across contexts. Extant literature also suggests that a range of important precursors
and early manifestations of social responsibility are already present in childhood. Very little of
this work explicitly focused on social responsibility, but rather central themes were inferred from
research on conceptually related constructs. Thus, longitudinal research on social responsibility
is urgently needed that spans the first two decades of life and links key developmental constructs
such as empathy, emotion regulation, executive function, and identity exploration to social
responsibility and related civic actions.
Our review of the processes by which social responsibility is cultivated in childhood and
adolescence across contexts suggests promising avenues for altering the developmental course of
social responsibility. A single context is not paramount, but rather various settings such as
family, peer, school, and community environments can plant the seeds of social responsibility
through directly socializing social responsibility as well as indirectly cultivating cognitive and
socioemotional competences. Experimental designs would offer rigorous tests of the role of
contexts in increasing young people’s social responsibility and related civic behaviors.
Interventions designed to encourage social responsibility across contexts may benefit from
focusing on mechanisms of modeling, value and disciplinary messages, and providing
opportunities to practice civic skills. Likewise, adults who work with youth can explicitly
incorporate a social responsibility lens into interactions by, for example, fostering perspective-
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taking by pointing out others’ needs and feelings, encouraging service experiences and
reflection, and respecting youths’ opinions. Indeed, everyday relationships founded on trust,
reciprocity, and democratic dialogue are likely to influence children and adolescents’
developmental pathways towards social responsibility. Helping young people establish bridging
social capital, through forming relationships with diverse others, for example, is also a potential
avenue for enhancing social responsibility.
Given that some scholars argue that values are formed in adolescence yet crystallize in
young adulthood (Jennings, 1989), putting resources toward the cultivation of social
responsibility in childhood and adolescence seems like a worthwhile endeavor. Longitudinal
investigations could also shed light on how stable social responsibility is once it is formed.
Extant literature suggests that individuals do not simply choose their values nor are they entirely
predestined (cf. Hitlin & Piliavin, 2004); rather, they take root based on developmental
experiences and interactions with others. Social responsibility is likely constrained by some
stable forces yet also has a component that is open to revision across the lifespan. In addition, we
know little about how individuals come to define their “radius of others,” but distinctions in
social responsibility orientations have important implications for whether young citizens are
empowered to help neighbors (benevolence), challenge power structures (universalism), or both.
Due to space limitations, we could not thoroughly delve into individual differences in
social responsibility and its developmental precursors, yet heterogeneity may be evident by
gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. Most developmental research on social
responsibility and related constructs has been conducted with middle class American youth.
Future work should prioritize samples with more cultural diversity and international
representation. It is also important to recognize that all youth do not follow the same
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developmental pathways: contexts may affect youth differently depending on personal and
background characteristics, or even genetic predispositions. Focusing on individual differences
in processes based on personal characteristics and social group membership can help us
understand the complexities in social responsibility development and give insights into how to
intervene to address disparities in civic opportunities.
Given its rich developmental roots, social responsibility should garner more explicit
attention from developmental scientists, civic scholars, and youth development workers. Social
responsibility motivates a certain kind of citizenship that is rooted in care and justice and stems
from obligations to contribute to society. It is these kinds of citizens that are positive agents of
democracy. Thus, it is important that we as the shepherds of the next generation of citizens
be intentional about promoting social responsibility in children and adolescents by cultivating
competencies across emotional, cognitive, and identity domains and enriching contexts that
support rather than impede social responsibility development.
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010-9541-6
Author Identification
Laura Wray-Lake, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University.
Email: laura.wray-lake@cgu.edu.
Amy K. Syvertsen, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist at Search Institute, Minneapolis, MN. Email:
amys@search-institute.org.
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James Youniss and Miranda Yates present a sophisticated analysis of community service's beneficial effects on adolescents' political and moral identity. Using a case study from a predominantly Black, urban high school in Washington, D.C., Youniss and Yates build on the insights of Erik Erikson on the social and historical nature of identity development. They show that service at a soup kitchen as part of a course on social justice gives youth the opportunity to reflect on their status in society, on how society is organized, on how government should use its power, and on moral principles related to homelessness and poverty. Developing a sense of social responsibility and a civic commitment, youth come to see themselves as active agents in society. The most authoritative work to date on the subject, this book challenges negative stereotypes of contemporary adolescents and illustrates how youth, when given the opportunity, can use their talents for social good. It will interest readers concerned with the development of today's youth and tomorrow's society.