Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

The Science of Giving: What Actually Inspires Kids to Be Generous

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We're heading into the so-called season of giving, which means that most of us parents are doing everything we can to encourage our kids to embrace the act of giving (as opposed to, say, merely getting). Here's a quick crash course on the science of giving -- what actually encourages kids to want to be generous.

Resist the temptation to come up with some hugely complicated "family generosity project." Instead, just follow your child's lead.

Sometimes we're so enthusiastic about the idea of teaching kids to be generous that we try to orchestrate some hugely elaborate family generosity project. We forget to give our children the opportunity to take the lead. Because here’s the thing: a project that is dreamed up by a child is going to be so much more meaningful to that child than a project that is the brain child of his or her parent — and it is much less likely to encounter resistance! (“But I don’t want to volunteer at the food bank…. Do we have to?”) 

It’s also tempting to be heavy-handed in other ways—like by trying to dictate the terms of your children’s generosity. For example a well-meaning parent might say to their child, “I expect you to donate $20 of your money to charity!” or “You have to spend $20 on your brother’s gift!” Sure, we want to encourage kids to be generous, but it’s so important to give them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas—because that’s when the magic happens!

This is something I was talking with Hugh Macmillan about recently. He’s a Peterborough, Ontario, social worker, parent, and grandparent. He reminisced about donating some of the hard-earned proceeds from his paper route to a nearby charity, back when he was a kid. He said that his father would take him down to the offices of this particular charity and then look on with pride while Hugh plunked a handful of change on the front counter. Decades later, he still remembers how great if felt to be that kid making that donation — an experience that would ultimately snowball into a lifelong habit of charitable giving for Hugh. His advice to parents who want to spark this kind of generosity in their own kids? Seize the moments like this one. This is when to have a conversation with giving about your child — when your child is being flooded with the great feeling that comes from giving.

Don't feel like you have to reward kids for being generous and/or heap on lavish praise.

Children who are offered a reward for doing something kind for another person are actually less likely to want to repeat that kind of behaviour again in future. Besides, children don’t need rewards (or over-the-top praise) to want to do kind things for others. Studies have revealed that children as young as 21 months of age are naturally inclined to help others without being asked. As parents, all we really need to do is to nurture that hard-wired instinct along.

Have age-appropriate expectations when it comes to generosity.

This is another easy trap to fall into as a parent: asking kids to measure up to adult-sized standards of behaviour when, in fact, they’re still just little kids. 

This is something else I talked to Hugh Macmillan about: about the pressure many parents feel to push (and, dare I say, maybe even oversell?) the whole idea of giving. Sure, generosity is one of those values we really want to pass along to our children, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Or, as Hugh put it, “We don’t have to cram all this learning in by the age of two!” 

If you’re the parent of a toddler who is deeply embedded in the “Mine!” stage, you can take this as a message of hope. Sure, your child may not be about to relinquish his death grip on his favourite toy truck anytime soon, but eventually he’ll stop being allergic to the whole idea of sharing. Or at least that’s the plan. (Yes, there are some adults who still struggle with the concept!)

Be prepared to be a role model yourself when it comes to all things giving.

Kids are much less inclined to pay attention to what you say than what you do, so you’ll want to make a point of allowing them to catch you being generous on a regular basis (and in a matter-of-fact rather than self-congratulatory way). 

And don’t forget to give them a peek behind the curtain—to help your kids to understand why you choose to be generous -- how great each act of generosity feels. You want your kids to understand why you are inspired to be generous, in the hope that they will be similarly inspired, too.

This definitely needs to be a year-round conversation as opposed to a once-a-year seasonal occurrence, by the way. Research conducted by the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame University tells us that acts of generosity need to be practiced consistently in order to have a lasting impact on the giver. So you definitely don’t want this to be a one-shot deal — not if you’re serious about sparking generosity in your kids.

Expand your circle of generosity to include a wide range of others (including people who may be very different from you).

Research has shown that people who reap the greatest benefits from being generous are those who are willing to be generous with people they don’t know intimately and who may be quite unlike themselves. The takeaway message of this research is clear: the benefits of being generous are much more limited if you stick to being generous with members of your own “tribe” (your own narrow circle of family and friends). 

It’s a timely message for our troubled world—about the importance of reaching outward rather than retreating inward; and of expanding the circle of people we care about and care for.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Related blog post from CBC website