Giving doesn’t always come naturally to kids. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, childhood is often a time that’s “all about me.” Lecturing, bribing, and nagging might work every once in a while, but they won’t turn your child into an instinctive giver. Instead, generosity is a practice that must be cultivated.
A 2020 study from the University of California, Davis shows children are more likely to be generous if they have compassionate mothers. Empathetic parenting builds close emotional ties between parents and children, according to the researchers. It also teaches children to be attuned to the needs of others through their parents’ example.
The children involved in the study were tested at ages 4 and 6. They were more likely to give other children tokens they earned in a game if they experienced positive parenting. The children’s generosity was a boon for others, but it also benefited them. Heart-rate monitoring showed those who shared tokens were calmer after the activity than those who donated only a few or no tokens.
Are You a Compassionate Parent?
You want to raise generous children, but how do you know if your parenting approach is likely to accomplish this goal?
Compassionate parents do the following:
- Listen to their children and avoid talking over them.
- Ask questions to help children find their own solutions to problems, rather than giving them the answers, and solicit their opinions on appropriate consequences for negative behavior.
- Acknowledge there can be several right ways to solve problems.
- Pay attention to positive emotions and behaviors, not just negative ones.
- Show affection, laugh, and have fun together.
- Set limits about important issues and encourage cooperation on everything else.
- Avoid anxiety-provoking disciplinary approaches such as shaming, spanking, threatening, or yelling.
- Make clear that the intention behind their discipline is love, not to exert power over their child.
- Model healthy behavior by keeping their promises, considering the feelings of others, and acting in accordance with the same rules they’ve set for their children.
- Admit they don’t know it all and demonstrate how to learn from mistakes.
- Avoid comparing their child to siblings or other children.
- Validate their children’s feelings and show compassion for themselves and others.
- Praise efforts and avoid teasing and name-calling.
How to Instill Generosity in Children
Since generosity is learned, you help cultivate a spirit of giving in your child. Here are a few tips:
Children are aware of other people’s feelings by age 3, but it can still be hard to see things from another perspective. From a young age, look for opportunities to nurture kindness. For example:
- Read books about feelings.
- Give examples about how what we say and do impacts others.
- Tell stories about the ways your friends and relatives have given back, or the way others have given to you and the difference it made.
Offer Positive Reinforcement.
Since generosity is rewarding in itself, an abundance of praise isn’t necessary. But if your child goes above and beyond to do something kind for someone, make note of it. Doing so may encourage more generous behavior.
Find Age-Appropriate Outlets.
There are ways to give at every age. Young children can share a toy with a sibling or draw a picture. As they grow into teenagers, they can get involved in a food or clothing drive, make blankets for those in need, or volunteer their time for a cause they care about.
It may be tempting to force children to give, but that may backfire in the long run by making them stingy or overly attached to material things. Instead, model generosity in your own life. This can include small gestures like volunteering at their school, thanking the server at a restaurant, or helping with dishes after a social gathering. It could also include bigger activities such as donating items for a good cause or starting a foundation. When they see your values in action, generosity will become part of who they are.
Make it a Daily Practice.
Most kids don’t just become generous with age – it’s something parents have to consciously work on. Encourage your kids to be on the lookout for daily opportunities to make someone feel good; for example, pay a compliment, help a friend finish their chores, or comfort someone who is struggling.
Get your kids used to hearing “no” or “not now” when they want something. They can put it on their wish list or save up for it, and they’ll learn important life skills in the process. You can also model this in your own life by focusing on time spent together rather than material things.
A Legacy of Giving
Paying it forward crosses generations. You teach your children, then they teach their children. Children learn these lessons first when they’re young, but they can learn them at any age. Parents set the tone, and children follow your lead when they’re in preschool, school age, high school, and beyond. Over time, you, your children, and their children – if they choose to have them – can develop a legacy of giving and generosity that makes your community a better place and makes your family happier at the same time.