Giving not only makes us feel better but it also makes us better human beings. Our children are already wired to give to others. We just have to guide them.
Many of us were taught to give and share when we were little, and hence we want to teach our children the same. Why? Likely because it’s the right thing to do, the opposite of selfishness, good karma, etc. At the crux of this traditional wisdom is the underlying premise that empathy (a big driver of generous behavior8) is a key element of emotional intelligence (you might have heard of EI). And do we want to promote the development of emotional intelligence in our kids? Yes: emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others9, and “research has shown that emotional intelligence or EQ “predicts over 54% of the variation in success (relationships, effectiveness, health, quality of life)”.10
So, we want our children to be empathetic and to give to others…but what if nature already had a way to get this done? It does. The fact is giving makes us (children and grown-ups alike) feel better. Researchers measured the activity of something called the mesolimbic reward system2 in the brain, which heightens when we receive positive rewards, and saw even greater activity when people donated to charity than when they received money themselves: “the joy of being a gift's giver may eclipse that of being its recipient.”2
Even better: our kids are already wired to give. Studies1 suggest that “sharing” behaviors in pre-schoolers (and specifically spontaneous behaviors) may be related to their own rudimentary empathic reasoning (as opposed to external forces) - in other words, their own moral compass. Furthermore, research4 shows that the frequency of prosocial behavior in little kids is not related to their age or gender, suggesting that no “socialization influences are at play”4. Some theorize that being wired to be generous results in a collective survival advantage2: “at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy…even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain.”2
And while there seems to be ample evidence that generous giving is more rewarding than receiving on a number of levels, “from the neural, to the personal, to the social,”2 the benefits of giving don’t stop with how we feel. Studies suggest that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate”.3 This is amazing, but it turns out that generous people actually are healthier and live longer.
It is clear then that our mission as parents and caregivers ought to be to guide our little ones in simply discovering the joy of giving (which they already carry within themselves) and thus live happier, healthier and more successful lives. Here are our top 10 tips on how to go about doing this.
1) Make a connection to others’ feelings
Encourage generosity by making a connection. Talk to them about how happy, excited and fortunate they are to have lots of toys, and how some children’s families can’t. Ask them if they wish other kids were just as happy also.5
2) Keep a guiding mindset
Some children are more naturally generous than others. “Don’t dwell on or project negative ideas about the fact that your child isn’t a “naturally” thoughtful person, instead focus on the opportunities to help him become one”.5
3) Give choices
There are many ways to give. Explain in simple terms a handful of choices and let them decide. Ideas could be collecting for food banks, or adopting an elderly relative that your child can make cards for or bring food to.5
4) It’s not all about “toys”
Talk to your child about family members, neighbors, bus drivers or teachers who would appreciate being remembered and encourage your child to create their own expression of giving. “Your child may have a talent to share — reading a story or playing a musical instrument in person or via video for a neighbor or relative to enjoy”.5
5) Underwrite the project
Going to a toy store with other children in mind can be a great experience. It allows your kid to put herself in someone else’s shoes and think about what they may want.5
6) Talk about your own efforts
Tell your child about what you do personally (or the organization(s) you support or participate in) to help people in need. Let your child know how good you felt about making that contribution happen”.5
7) Give old clothes and toys away to other kids in need.
Explain to your child that she isn't going to use them anymore and other kids need them. Talk about the reasons other kids don’t have as much.6
8) Model generosity
Let your sharing with others show. Share with your children and let them know you are sharing. Share your own time fairly. “Try to be an equal opportunity parent as much as possible, while teaching your children that other factors come into play in day-to-day life”.7
9) Play games
Play “Share Daddy/Mommy.” For example, place the two-year-old on one knee and the four-year-old on the other to teach both children to share their special person.7
10) Protect your child’s interests as you teach your child to share
Respect your child’s attachment to certain things, while still guiding her to be generous. “It’s normal for a child to be selfish with some toys and generous with others. Guard the prized toy. Ease your child into sharing”.7
Happy Giving Everyone!
(1) Eisenberg-Berg, Nancy and Michael Hand, “The Relationship of Preschoolers' Reasoning about Prosocial Moral Conflicts to Prosocial Behavior”, June 1979, Child Development Vol. 50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1129410
(2) Konnikova, Maria, “The Psychology Behind Gift-Giving and Generosity”, January 4, 2012, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/the-psychology-behind-gift-giving-and-generosity/
(3) Post,Stephen G., “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good”, 2005, International Journal of Behavioral Medicine - Vol. 12, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Post-AltruismHappinessHealth.pdf15901215
(4) Yarrow, Marian, Radke Carolyn Zahn Waxler, David Barrett, Jean Darby, Robert King, Marilyn Pickett and Judith Smith, “Dimensions and Correlates of Prosocial Behavior in Young Children”, March 1976, Child Development Vol. 47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1128290
(5) Chansky,Tamar, “How to Teach Your Child the Joy of Giving, Not Just Getting, At the Holidays”, December16, 2014, hunningtonpost.com, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-chansky/how-to-teach-your-child-the-joy-of-giving_b_6323254.html
(6) Coffey,Laura T., ”Kindness in action: 5 ways to teach kids to give back, serve others”, Nov. 20, 2015, today.com, https://www.today.com/parents/kindness-action-5-ways-teach-kids-give-back-serve-others-t57181
(7) Sears, Bill, “11 Ways to Teach Your Child to Share”, askdrsears.com, https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/morals-manners/11-ways-teach-your-child-share
(8) Howard, J. A., & Barnett, M. A. “Arousal of empathy and subsequent generosity in young children”, 1981, The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00221325.1981.10534147
(9) “What is Emotional Intelligence”, psychologytoday.com, https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/emotional-intelligence
(10) Firestone, Lisa, “Why We Need to Teach Kids Emotional Intelligence”, March 16, 2016, psychologytoday.com, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201603/why-we-need-teach-kids-emotional-intelligence