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.

Finding Your Way in an Empty (or Emptier) Nest

The transition to an empty nest can feel gut-wrenching and/or disorienting at first -- but you can find your way over time. 

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It's the little things that tend to do you in: the sight of a too-empty refrigerator; the fact that you're no longer tripping over a small mountain of running shoes each time you attempt to enter or exit the front door; and the silence that greets you if you happen to be brave enough to step foot in your child's now-empty room. 

The transition to an empty nest (or an emptier nest, as the case may be) can be a rough one, especially during the early days. Sure, you've known this day was coming from the moment you became a parent, but it can catch you off guard nonetheless. ("How did the past 18 years manage to fly by so quickly?" you ask yourself as you hug your child goodbye and exit his dorm room.)

It doesn't seem all that long ago that you were trying to wrap your head around the fact that you were about to become a parent -- and now this chapter in your life is coming to a close. Or so it seems....

But is it? Are you obsolete? Have you actually outlived your usefulness as a parent? Or could it be that you're about to enter an exciting new stage together? (Or at least once you're finally able to stop crying?!!!) Based on what I've learned over the past ten years while watching my own four kids exit the nest, I would have to say it's definitely the latter. This isn't the end. It's more like a beginning. There are great times ahead. But you have to allow yourself to feel what ever it is you're feeling before you can find your way to that happier place.

And here's something else you need to know: there’s no right or wrong way to feel as you weather this milestone transition in your life as a parent. Your feelings may surprise you. You may feel more devastated or more relieved than you had ever imagined yourself feeling. And that's okay!

It's also pretty common to experience a mix of emotions. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnott, 84 percent of new empty nesters report missing their kids; 90 percent say they’re happy their kids are more independent; and 60 percent report that they’re looking forward to having more time to spend with a partner or spouse. 

Looking for some strategies to help you manage that cocktail of emotions? Here are a few tips, based on what I've experienced firsthand and what I've learned from other parents. (Note: If you prefer to listen to the audio version of these tips, you can tune into my recent interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.)

Give yourself a chance to feel all the feelings

Resist the temptation to fast-forward through these emotions -- and know that the intensity of these emotions will start to ease over time. 

Talk to other parents who’ve weathered this transition and come out the other side

Look for people who will help to reassure you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually an ending, but more like a beginning: the start of an exciting new chapter in your life and a brand new relationship with your child.

Offer that same kind of support to other parents

Reach out to other empty nesters you know who might be having an exceptionally tough time. And be sure to make a point of looking out for the dads as well as the moms. After all, it's not as if moms have a monopoly on experiencing that aching feeling of loneliness when they stumble into a child’s now-empty bedroom. Dads feel it, too. And we need to ensure that they know that it's okay to talk about it as well.

Set a new goal for yourself

Remember all those years when you longed for a bit of time to yourself? Now you've got that time. So set a goal for yourself. Sign up for a course, acquire a new hobby, train for your first 5K, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve always wanted to go – perhaps with someone you haven’t had the chance to spend time with in a while. In other words, embrace the freedom that comes from having a bit more time to yourself and for all the other important relationships in your life. Not only will this help you feel better (or, at a minimum, a little less awful): you'll also be modelling healthy resilience for your kids. You'll be demonstrating your ability to embrace new opportunities as opposed to, say, moping around the house -- or turning your kids' empty bedrooms into shrines! 

Stay connected in a way that works for your child and for you

Look for opportunities to maintain your connection to your child -- and don’t feel that you need to apologize for doing so. At a time when parents are frequently (and often unfairly) lambasted for being “helicopter parents,” you might be hesitant to provide your child with the behind-the-scenes emotional support and connection that actually encourages first-year college and university students to thrive.

Of course, what you say (and how you say it) matters a lot. You want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging. You want to express full confidence in your child’s ability to cope with whatever curveballs happen to come her way. And, finally, you want to remind her that she can reach out to you for support at any time, because family is forever and your love is unconditional. 

All that said, it’s important to recognize that some students will welcome more day-to-day contact with their parents than others. Some will benefit from a steady stream of encouraging messages from back home -- while others may want to pull away a little at first as they dive into the carnival-like excitement of campus life. Let your child take the lead in determining the frequency and mode of communication (text messages versus phone calls or face-to-face visits), but don’t be afraid to reach out if he or she drops the communication ball. Odds are your child will welcome a semi-regular stream of “thinking of you” messages from back home. (According to a December 2015 study conducted by the BMO Wealth Institute, over half of Canadian parents reported having contact with their young adults every day or almost every day. And young adults welcome that contact, with just 23% complaining that their parents were overly involved in their lives.)

Ultimately, that contact is good for them—and it’s good for you, too. Research shows that life satisfaction increases for parents during the empty nest stage for those parents are in frequent contact with their young adult child. So don't feel pressured to pull away as you enter this new phase in your relationship with your child. Your child still needs you as much as ever. They just happen to need you differently, that's all.


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: How Self-Compassion Eases Back-to-School Anxiety for Parents + Kids

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The kids are getting ready to head back to school. It's an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year for parents and kids alike. If you're looking for a way to ease the pressure and dial down the anxiety that you and your child may be feeling, you may want to tap into the far-reaching benefits of practicing self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?

Not quite sure what I'm talking about when I refer to self-compassion? Here's a quick crash course. 

Self-compassion is compassion directed toward the self. It's about being at least as kind to yourself as you are to other people, as opposed to being harsher, more critical, or less kind.

Self-compassion is deeply rooted in a feeling of connectedness to other people. It encourages you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that everyone goes through times of struggle. It's not just you. 

Self-compassion is action-oriented. It's about wanting good things to happen for yourself and being willing to take action to make those good things happen. For most of us, that means learning how to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to feeling like we need to run away from those feelings. As psychotherapist Jennifer Brighton explained when I interviewed her for my recent CBC Radio parenting column on self-compassion, "The essence of being self-compassionate always comes down to, 'I am suffering and I'm willing to see that -- and now how do I get through this?'" So self-compassion is about really listening to yourself when you're having a bad day, just as you would really listen to a friend who was struggling. And then it's simply a matter of allowing that "conversation" with yourself to guide you in deciding what action you should take to make things better.  

How is self-compassion different from self-esteem?

Self-compassion is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance whereas self-esteem is much more dependent on achievement. You feel great about yourself when you're achieving all kinds of fabulous things  and terrible about yourself when you're not.

People whose self-worth is tied to self-esteem tend to crave a lot of external validation. They need other people to tell them that they're worthwhile human beings as opposed to finding those feelings of worthiness within themselves.

Self-esteem is also related to feelings of competition. You're constantly striving to be the best -- and you're not afraid to do so at the expense of other people, if that's the price you have to pay to get ahead. This can leave you feeling separate from other people (because you see those other people as potential competitors as opposed to potential friends) and it can even promote unkind or even bullying behaviours. 

So, as you can see, self-compassion and self-esteem are as different as night and day, both in terms of how they leave you feeling about yourself and how they encourage you to treat other people. 

How can kids benefit from learning about self-compassion?

Teaching kids about self-compassion can help to counter deep-rooted cultural messages that encourage perfectionism and fuel feelings of anxiety. This is important because there's growing evidence that perfectionism is on the rise. A recent study of over 41,000 Canadian, American, and British college students concluded that, "Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others." That's pretty much the recipe for great personal unhappiness, poor mental health, and poor relationships with others. 

As parents, we need to seize the opportunity to help our kids find a happier, healthier path through life -- a path that includes teaching kids about self-compassion.

Here's why.

First of all, self-compassion encourages emotional stability. Your child doesn't have to repeatedly demonstrate her worthiness by constantly chasing after achievement after achievement. She understands that she is lovable and worthy just by virtue of being herself. Teaching your child about self-compassion means giving your child the precious gift of self-acceptance.

Secondly, self-compassion encourages resilience. Your child is better able to bounce back from life's road bumps. Instead of beating himself up when he fails a math test, he is able to acknowledge what's happened and come up with strategies for dealing with the underlying problem (like maybe getting some extra help from his math teacher). And because he's able to make the shift into action mode, he's less likely to find himself stuck in a downward spiral of negative emotions -- emotions that might otherwise interfere with his efforts resolve the problem of that failed math test. 

Finally, self-compassion encourages learning and growth. Your child isn't afraid to take chances or to try new things because his feelings of self-worth aren't narrowly anchored in any single achievement. Who cares if he tries that new thing and falls flat on his face? He's still a 100% worthy and lovable human being and he knows it.

How can parents benefit from practicing self-compassion?

Self-compassion changes the entire landscape of parenting. It makes everything so much less stressful. 

For starters, it makes parenting easier. Parenting is hard enough without having a self-critical voice in your head constantly telling you that "you're doing it all wrong." Self-compassion helps to silence that voice.

Self-compassion also helps you to become a kinder and a more effective parent. You find it easier to acknowledge and accept your child's struggles and shortcomings, just as you've learned to accept your own. Instead of asking yourself to be perfect and insisting that your child be perfect, too, you recognize that you're both doing the best that you can with the skills and abilities that you have right now -- and that you can build on those skills and abilities over time. It's about learning and growing together. 

How to teach your kids (and yourself!) about self-compassion

The best way to teach kids about self-compassion is by modelling this skill for them. Our kids are always paying attention to what we do and what we say -- so let your child catch you being kind to yourself the next time you forget an appointment, misplace your car keys, or spill a cup of coffee on the couch. 

It's also helpful to talk about self-compassion as a family. When you're watching a movie together, highlight situations where characters are treating themselves with extreme kindness or extreme unkindness. Talk about what motivates these types of behaviour and what the real-life fallout can be of being perpetually mean to yourself.

If you have a child who is extremely self-critical, help your child to change the channel in her brain from self-criticism to self-compassion. The next time you catch her saying unkind things about herself, encourage her to think about what she would say to a friend who was dealing with the very same situation. Then encourage her to say those same kinds of things to herself. 

At first, practicing self-compassion may feel awkward and unnatural — and you might even find yourself getting a little discouraged. What you don’t want to do is to beat yourself up for not getting this self-compassion thing right — or at least not right away. It takes practice to master any new skill, and self-compassion is no exception. the first step is to simply pay attention to the voice in your head — to notice how often that voice is critical as opposed to kind. Then, when you catch yourself saying something harsh or judgmental to yourself, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Is that really true? Am I actually the world’s worst klutz, just because I spilled a drink on the couch?” and “Would I say something that harsh and judgmental to a coworker or my best friend, if they were the one who spilled the drink on the couch?” (Hopefully, the answer is no!)

If you can remind yourself of the far-reaching benefits to both yourself and your child of mastering this skill together, you’ll be more motivated to keep trying to treat yourselves (and one another) with greater compassion.

You’ll want to do the hard but life-affirming work of journeying to that happier, healthier place as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gram, Self-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Summer Parenting Challenges

It’s summertime and the living is easy – or so the song says

But what if you happen to be a parent? 

Sure, for some parents, summer offers a much-needed break: a chance to relax and coast after a frantically busy school year. 

But, for others, the challenges of parenting actually ramp up during the summer months.

I know what it feels like to welcome the arrival of summer -- and to dread the arrival of summer as well -- because I've experienced both types of summers as a parent. 

The joys of summer

Let's start out by talking about the joys. 

The best thing about summer is the lack of structure and routine -- and the freedom it promises kids as well as parents.

Remember what it felt like when you were a kid as you walked out the classroom door on that final day of school? How free you felt? You knew that, for the next two months, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted. You could sleep in as late as you wanted to (or as late as your parents would allow you). You could make on-the-fly plans with your friends, deciding, at a moment’s notice, to go for a bike ride or explore a nearby ravine. It was all about possibility. The squares on the calendar were deliciously blank for the next two months and you were ready to make the most of that freedom.

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Some parents are lucky enough to get to enjoy a taste of that very same freedom. They celebrate the fact that they’re liberated from the tasks of making lunches or supervising homework or getting kids to the bus stop on time. And if you’re the parent of a child who tends to experience a lot of struggles at school (a child who has a learning disability, a child who has a lot of behavioral challenges, a child who is dealing with any number of other types of social or academic challenges), you may welcome a break from all these added school-year stresses. 

 

The challenges of summer

Of course, you're only able to enjoy the freedom of summer if you’re not simultaneously worrying about how you’re going to keep the kids busy and entertained for an entire summer, while you, the parent, go to work or run a business. And, these days, the majority of parents find themselves grappling with these challenges.

That's because the entire landscape of parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades.  As recently as the mid-1970s, it was still the norm to have at least one parent home full-time – a parent who could provide the round-the-clock supervision that kids need during the summer months. But today, the norm is to have two parents employed full-time outside the home -- which kind of begs the question: “Who exactly is supposed to be taking care of the kids during the summer months?” 

It's a problem that individual parents are left to solve for themselves -- and most parents end up with a patchwork of summer childcare solutions.

They might end up using some or all of their vacation to care for the kids for at least some of those weeks.

They might send the kids to summer activities for a week or two, if they can swing the logistics of getting the kids to and from those activities and come up with the necessary cash to pay for them, too.

They might be able to convince a grandparent to pinch hit for a little while (assuming, of course, that the grandparent isn’t working full-time – as many are).

But it’s all very pieced together, very expensive, and very stressful. 

Add to this the fact that a growing number of Canadian parents are precariously employed and you can see that the challenges ramp up even further. How are you supposed to make summer plans for your kids when you have no idea what your work schedule is going to be? Or how much money you’ll be making? 

And then there are the challenges that go along with being part of the so-called "gig economy." Sure, if you're self-employed, you have some flexibility when it comes to setting your own work schedule. But your workload doesn’t magically vaporize during the summer months, just because your kids are out of school. In fact, depending on your line of work, it might actually become even busier. Back when I had four school-aged kids and was working as a freelance magazine writer, August was always a challenge. That’s when magazine editors would start assigning articles for their meatiest issue of the year: the holiday issue. So I’d find myself trying to schedule interviews at times of day when my kids were least likely to need me (something that was pretty much impossible to predict). So much for the so-called freedom of working from home! I soon discovered that it meant the “freedom” to work at all hours of day or night – and right through your summer vacation, if need be. Some freedom!

 

Why summer can be extra challenging for some kids and some parents

All parents have to deal with garden-variety parenting challenges that result from changes to the family’s school year routine. They have to find ways to ensure that the kids aren’t glued to a screen all summer long. They need to make sure that the kids’ sleep and eating habits don’t get totally out-of-whack – because, when they do, everyone in the family pays the price. But, for some kids and some parents, the challenges can be far greater.

We humans are creatures of habit -- we thrive when life is predictable; when we’ve settled into a comfortable routine (or even rut). 

For some kids, routine isn’t merely something that’s nice to have. It’s something they need to have in order to feel secure and function at their best. I’m thinking of all four of my kids, who have ADHD, and I’m thinking of my youngest son who has an autism spectrum disorder. Summers were particularly tough for him. He really missed the structure of the school-year routine. 

And then there are the challenges faced by parents who share custody of their kids. They may have to come up with creative ways to make shared custody work at a time of year when many school-year routines go out the window – and when shifting schedules and vacation plans have to be factored in as well. And none of this is easy.

How to deal with summer parenting challenges

Wondering how to deal with these challenges? Here are two strategies that have worked well for me.

Join forces with other families. I know: I seem to offer that particular piece of advice a lot. But that’s because a lot of the problems that we’re grappling with as parents are too big for any individual family to solve on their own. So look for ways to pool your energies and resources so that every child on your street gets taken care of throughout the entire summer -- and so that every parent feels supported at the same time.

Tap into the wisdom of your kids. Rather than just spewing out a long list of family rules, talk with them about what it’s going to take for everyone in the family to have a great summer – and how every member of the family can help to make that happen. Your kids are more likely to want to buy into solutions that they helped to create – and, what’s more, kids often come up with creative solutions that adults can’t even imagine. So don’t be afraid to tap into the wisdom of your eight year old or your eighteen year old when it comes to keeping the lid on screen time, getting everyone fed, and ensuring that everyone’s getting the sleep they need to function at their best. Or when it comes to making time for fun.

Speaking of fun....

Remind yourself that summer is a limited time offer -- just as childhood is a limited time offer. Look for ways to make as many happy memories you can this summer (but in a low-stress, 100 percent guilt-free way).

This is something I was speaking to Nora Spinks about recently for my CBC Radio parenting column on this topic. She’s the CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. And this is what she had to say: "Families can make the most of summers by taking time. Be together. Laugh. It's a time to create memories. It's a time where you can try new things -- where you can be really present with your kids. You might not be able to be with them all the time, but, when you are, be present."

So it’s not about trying to turn every single moment you have with your kids this summer into a picture-perfect moment (because that’s impossibly high stakes for any parent). But it is about making at least some of these moments really count: about pausing long enough to ask yourself what you want your child to carry with him when he reflects back upon this particular summer in his childhood and what memories you want to carry with you when you reflect back on this particular chapter in your life as a parent. Have a great summer!

Related Post: The Recipe for a Perfect Childhood Summer

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She has just finished writing a brand new book about parenting. That book will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019. 

How to Get Your Parenting Resolutions Back on Track

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

We’re roughly two weeks into the New Year—which means it’s just about time for even the best-intentioned New Years’ resolutions to start to fall apart. Hey, it happens: enthusiasm fades, reality kicks in, and resolutions end up being forgotten or abandoned.

But what if your resolutions have something to do with parenting? Do you really want to put those resolutions on hold for an entire year? 

The good news is that you don’t have to! I've been reading up on the science of habit change and I've identified four key strategies that can help you get back on track. Here's what you need to know....

Strategy One: Engage in Some Mental Time Travel

The most effective trick that I came across while pouring through the research on the science of habit change literature also happens to be a strategy I stumbled upon on my own, simply by chance. I found that if I was having a really tough day as a parent  (let’s say, I woke up with a headache; and my husband was working midnights; and all four kids were acting up), I could keep my emotions in check and parent in a way that I could feel good about at the end of the day by focusing on the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my kids in years to come.

It was all about engaging in mental time travel—connecting with my future self.

I’d mentally picture my kids when they were all grown up, talking about me with one of their friends, saying things like, “My mom was the kind of mom who….dot, dot, dot” Or  “I grew up in the kind of family where….dot, dot, dot” – and I decided that if I wanted them to have good things to say after the “dot, dot, dot,” I needed to make our relationship the priority in the here and now.

Well, as it turns out, there’s some pretty solid science to support this particular strategy. The science of habit change tells us that you’ll find it easier to stick with a new habit if you make a point of mentally projecting the outcome for your future self (as opposed to giving into temptation in the moment). In other words, parenting with your big-picture parenting goals in mind.

Strategy Two: Make an Identity Shift

As it turns out, this piece of the puzzle is huge. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to shift your behaviour is by shifting your identity—or, in some cases, your entire family’s identity.

Let’s say that your parenting resolution is to make the shift from being a family of couch potatoes to a family that is active together on a regular basis. If you start telling yourself “We’re the kind of family of family that does something physically active together every weekend,” you’ll find it easier to make this your family’s new normal. That’s because you won’t have to make the decision about whether or not to be active together each and every weekend: your family’s new identity will simply remind you that being active is what you do because, hey, you’re that kind of family!

Of course, this will feel really awkward at first. You’ll feel like an imposter (“Who us?!! We're the poster family for couch potatoes!”) But, over time, your behaviour and your identity will shift. In the meantime, all you’ve got to do is to heed that old advice to “Fake it until you make it.”

Strategy Three: Anchor Your New Habit to an Existing Habit

One of the most effective strategies for getting a new habit to stick is to anchor that a brand new habit on an existing habit

For example, let’s say that your resolution is to spend a bit of time at the start or end of each day, reflecting on what is (and isn’t) going well in your life as a parent, so that you can learn from that. 

The easiest way to remember to do this thinking is to anchor this thinking habit to something you already do on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth—to say to yourself, “I always reflect on how my day is going while I’m brushing my teeth.” Over time, this moment of self-reflection will become as automatic as reaching for your toothbrush and your toothpaste!

Strategy Three: Seek Support from Your Parenting Village

Don't overlook that fact that other people who care about you and your kids may be able to offer practical assistance or moral support or both.

If, for example, you’ve resolved to make more home-cooked meals this year, you might decide to get together with another family (or even a group of families) to swap recipes and/or to batch cook together. 

Likewise, if your resolution is to be active together more often as a family, you might want to join forces with some other parents you know to plan multi-family hikes, swims, and bike rides.  Or to encourage and motivate one another via text message or social media. Or all of the above…..

Final Thoughts

It can take time—and repeated efforts—for a new habit to stick. So don’t assume that all hope is lost the first time you accidentally revert to couch potato mode or find yourself reigniting your love affair with your smartphone. Simply resolve to keep trying.

And as for beating yourself up for falling short of your lofty goals? That isn’t helpful in the least.

Instead, make a point of treating yourself with at least as much compassion as you would extend to a friend who was struggling to keep his or her parenting resolutions. (You wouldn’t be much of a friend if you browbeat your friend for falling short and yet it’s so easy to adopt that ultra-critical stance with yourself.)

What we’re talking about here is practicing self-compassion – one of the most powerful ingredients in the recipe for lasting change. Resolve to treat yourself to regular and ample servings of it this year.

This blog post is based on my recent CBC Radio parenting column on the same topic. Want to find out more? Listen to my conversations with Fresh Air (Toronto) and/or DayBreak Alberta

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