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Teaching children the joy of generosity

Family donating gifts and toys to charity for Christmas holiday
Credit: iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Generosity is a trait most of us would like to see our children embrace, but how do we teach them about the power of giving?

Christmas is a great opportunity for parents to show children that there’s joy in being charitable and that there’s more to life than holding hands out for seemingly endless gifts.

Clinical child psychologist and Deakin University Professor Jennifer McIntosh says when it comes to nurturing generosity and empathy, it’s vital children are shown ‘the roots of empathy’ from a very early age.

“The roots of empathy are one of the top developmental achievements in the first years of life. It’s the quality of parenting that a baby experiences. The way parents respond to their baby in a sensitive way,” says Professor McIntosh.

“The attachment relationship between parent and baby has been shown to influence brain development and the development of higher order functioning, particularly the set-up of the prefrontal cortex – as it grows it supports higher order emotions including empathy.

“So, to experience empathy is the top job of any parent to ensure their child feels ‘felt.’ It’s not just about teaching compassion as a good principle in life but that the child begins life knowing what it’s like to accurately feel what you’re feeling.”

Simply put, your response to your baby sets up the baby’s experience of empathy.

One of the vital tasks of preschool education is to nurture the capacity for empathy, to be able to be in a group cooperatively and understand the impact of behaviour on other people.
Professor Jennifer McIntosh

“Then around the age of two, the child who has had a good experience in the first two years of receiving empathy, is able to show it themselves,” says Professor McIntosh.

“One of the vital tasks of preschool education is to nurture the capacity for empathy, to be able to be in a group cooperatively and understand the impact of behaviour on other people.”

Parents need to lead by example

Christmas time or any peak time for gift giving is ideal for parents to lead by example. Professor McIntosh believes it’s critically important that parents not simply talk about the importance of being generous, but to actually show their children that they are being generous.

“In our house, we volunteer at Christmas time, we buy gifts that are from charities, we believe in re-gifting,” she says.

“Parents can make those choices; you can get yourself on volunteering lists, there are so many ways to show generosity. And nothing makes you feel better about yourself than to know you’ve just helped somebody.

“It’s also important to talk to your children with the same level of excitement about what we’re going to give other people, as the excitement around what children are hoping to receive, for birthdays and Christmas.

“Always make sure the list of what we’re going to give is longer than the list of what we’ve asked for. These types of principals are woven into the fabric of life and will set your children up for life.”

Children who see their parents going out of their way to help others are more likely to mimic that behaviour. According to Professor McIntosh, it’s incredibly important for children to see their parents in service to other people.

“It’s about giving up their time, not just their money, and making an effort to help others,” says Professor McIntosh.

“For example, cooking a meal for somebody. They will see that mum is busy cooking our meal and now she’s busy cooking a meal for somebody else who needs a meal too.

“Much of the impact of generosity is non-verbal and it’s associated with the reward centre in our brain; we get an endorphin rush when we do something good for other people.

“It’s so important that, even before a child has words, that the roots of civil responsibility are shown, particularly when it comes to caring for those less fortunate.”

It’s not for parents to actually tell their child that they’re being generous or showing empathy, but for parents to carry out acts of generosity in front of their child so they can observe and learn from their behaviour.
Professor Jennifer McIntosh

There are many ways to help your child become a happy giver, instead of always receiving gifts.

“Parents can model generosity and compassion by showing children that they are kind and generous to others. When it’s time to give gifts, whether it’s for birthdays or Christmas, involve your child as much as you can in the process. This can mean writing a list and discussing what kind of things the friend or family member would like.”

Start lessons in generosity and empathy early

Professor McIntosh advises parents to think about what sort of theology they might teach in their own home or what sort of humanitarian values they’ll give their kids.

“It’s a good idea to begin the origins of civic responsibility when children are very young.  A child can learn to pick a flower, give it to somebody and watch the beautiful expression on someone’s face. There are so many simple ways to show your child how to give generously.

“It’s not for parents to actually tell their child that they’re being generous or showing empathy, but for parents to carry out acts of generosity in front of their child so they can observe and learn from their behaviour.

“There are life lessons in showing generosity and empathy. It should be something that comes naturally and easily and not feel like it’s artificial.”

When a child has a strong sense of empathy, it not only encourages tolerance of others but it helps them build strong relationships and higher levels of overall happiness. Being generous can also promote good mental health.

“There are limits to generosity but the important lesson is when children see their parents being generous and looking after others. It should be seen as a natural thing to be generous; a natural and logical choice.”