How to Teach Generosity: An 8-Year-Old’s Generous Birthday Gift:
What did you ask for for your 8th birthday? Toys? Candy? If you were an 8-year-old in 2016, what would top your wish list? Your own iPhone? A trip to Disneyland? And if those requests seem off-the-charts, maybe you could come up with something a little more modest, if still unrealistic: Some makeup like your Mom’s? An expensive pair of boots like your best friend’s? Disney doll collectibles?
For Reagan Dearth, it was none of the above. Instead, she requested that friends and family contribute canned goods.
All totaled, Reagan collected 93 pounds of food and she and her father drove the donation to the Bellville Neighborhood Outreach Center together. What is going on in the head of an 8-year-old with such a generous heart? What did she see or hear that prompted her to contribute in this way? It seems clear that at some point, her parents have made it a point to tech generosity in their home.
I love the fact that on the very top of her shopping cart full of contributions, you’ll see a package of Oreo cookies. If you were an 8-year-old child making a contribution to a hungry child whose other donated meals consisted mainly of canned soup or fruit, maybe an extravagance like an Oreo cookie would be a welcome change.
What Helps a Child Learn Generosity?
After seeing the original article about Reagan, I spent some time pondering what methods there are for teaching children about generosity. I know from growing up with a generous sister that some children are naturally inclined to share and give, while others are naturally a little more self-centered. I was the self-centered one. It was my sister who would share every stick of gum in a package without ever getting one herself. She was the one who thought of raking leaves for elderly neighbors, not me. But I benefited immensely from her example, because she was able to show me how generosity felt, even if I wasn’t the instigator. I still get a funny pain in my stomach when I think about that treasured package of Juicy Fruit gum and how it tasted when she gave me a piece, and also how it tasted when my Mom later pointed out that my sister had gone without in order to share with as many others as possible.
So the question is, is generosity a natural trait or a learned one? I’m guessing it’s a little of both. Scientists have documented that some human beings may actually possess a gene that makes them more altruistic. And because my sister and I grew up in the same household and I watched her give anonymously again and again while I was never particularly disposed to share until after she “guilted” me into it through her good example, I’m also inclined to believe that it’s possible to teach generosity.
How to Teach Generosity
The Center for Parenting Education suggests 6 methods for helping children learn what it means to give:
- Teach young children how to share – Child development specialists and parents alike sometimes disagree on whether or not children should be taught (pressured) to share, but it seems safe to say that loving adults can model sharing and that most children will adopt the practice when they are ready, generally sometime between 24 and 60 months of age. Shaming a child for failing to share, or coercing sharing is not likely to produce a child who is willing to share the next time. And since many of us still struggle with sharing as adults, we can afford to be patient as our children learn to hand over the swing at the playground, split a package of fruit snacks evenly, or determine whose turn it is to decide what show to watch on TV. “Often, when you think of the word ‘sharing,’ you picture dividing tangible things like splitting a piece of cake with someone or letting friends play with toys,” writes Deb Cohen, a Certified Parenting Educator. “Even these small examples of sharing can help your children understand, in simple and concrete terms, what it means to be generous.
- Teach generosity by modeling – It’s a good idea to involve children in your own acts of generosity, including making a meal for a sick neighbor or helping a neighbor lay sod. Let them see you writing a check to a favorite charity. Keep in mind that generosity within the family can be a powerful teacher. I remember once asking my mother if she would help me bake my brother a lemon meringue pie after he had been gone for a week at a summer camp. She obliged. Inexplicably, I missed him, and a pie seemed like a safe way of saying so. In a moment of weakness, I also returned his rubber band gun, which had mysteriously gone missing. I regretted that decision, because, after all, he was my big brother, and the temptation was just too great. The gun went missing again not long afterward.
- Talk about how it feels to give – One way to teach generosity and encourage altruistic behavior might be to talk more about how it feels when we give. Give children an opportunity to think about and express their own thoughts about generosity that they witness in others. Expose them to the work of charitable organizations and give them an opportunity to contribute.
- Be generous together – When children are given the opportunity to give input about how they want to give to others or be charitable, you might be surprised at the ideas they initiate. When they get to work side by side with you painting the deck for the grandparents, weeding the landscaping at their church, or cleaning up after the school carnival, they get the benefit of a feeling of participation in a good cause as well as quality time with you. “Ask your children to help you when you pack up donations of clothes or household items or when you help a friend. Spend an afternoon at a food bank or at a community clean-up project. Let them experience first-hand what it feels like to give their time to a cause.” writes Cohen.
- Praise the giving impulse – Be quick to notice and praise children when they are generous. You’ll be surprised how often these opportunities for giving sincere praise will come up if you watch for them. Did your son wait for a friend who was running to catch up? Did your daughter offer a seat to an elderly person on the bus? Praising your child’s giving impulse will help that impulse develop.
- Create opportunities – Children want to help, but the don’t often know how. “For example, children may not fully comprehend what it means to donate money to the Red Cross to help victims of a natural disaster. Instead, they may find it easier to understand giving a bag of cat food to a local animal shelter where they can actually see the animals. This act makes it real for them,” advises Cohen. Find activities that align with their interests. A daughter who is a soccer player may get a real charge out of collecting used jerseys and new balls for a less fortunate team, or donating to a Major League Soccer initiative such as nothing but nets.
The opportunities to teach generosity in your own home can be as simple as making Dad a sandwich or as complex as financing a major charitable donation. When Reagan gathered canned goods for her birthday, she probably didn’t expect to become the subject of a blog post or a newspaper photograph, and while she was gracious enough to pose for a snapshot, it seems clear that her impulse was nothing more than to give some of her abundance to someone who had less. Hers is an example worth emulating.
Cohen, Deb. “Teach Generosity by Encouraging Giving: The Best Gift of …” Center for Parenting Education. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/indulgence-values/giving-best-gift/.
“A Young Girl’s Shining Example of Generosity.” BNOC.org. Accessed October 24, 2016. http://www.bnoc.org/news/2016/1/19/young-girl-donates-93-lbs-of-food-to-bellville-neighborhood-outreach-center.