During the holidays, opportunities abound to help kids understand why and how to help people in need, with food drives increasing and countless organizations asking for end-of-year donations.
Nurturing a child’s inner motivation for generosity helps develop something he or she wants to do and not seen as a chore imposed on them by an outside force (like an anxious parent). Giving, in other words, has to feel good.
So how can we make sure that giving feels good for kids and launches this “positive cycle” of happiness and generosity? Here are five lessons to help your child with giving.
Be a role model—and explain why you do what you do. Research stretching back decades has found that kids are more likely to be kind and generous when they have at least one parent who models that behavior for them. But more recently, research by Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm of Indiana University has underscored that it’s also important for parents to have conversations with their kids about generosity.
One study led by Ottoni-Wilhelm found that adolescents were 18 percent more likely to donate money to a charitable organization if their parents had made any donation of their own in the past year. But if a parent had made a donation and talked with their child about giving, that child was 33 percent more likely to donate—an increase of 15 percentage points. Similarly, adolescents whose parent did volunteer work were 27 percent more likely to volunteer themselves—and 47 percent more likely if their parent also talked with them about generosity.
The experts stress that those conversations can and should start early, well before adolescence.
Parents don’t need to explicitly encourage their kids to donate time or money—but just raising awareness about the parents’ own actions is an important first step. Research has found that those conversations really start to “sink in” around the age of eight.
Help them understand the need
For kids to feel compelled to help others, first they have to recognize that their help is actually needed.
Here, parents can tap into kids’ strong tendency for empathy—evident in the earliest stages of life—which enables them to pick up on the emotions and needs of others. Studies suggest that kids are more likely to help people in need when they try to see the world through their eyes or identify things they have in common. A personal, human connection to someone makes that person’s needs feel more real, harder to ignore, and thus motivates us to alleviate his or her suffering.
Studies show that young children can look for ways to interact with the people they’re helping. However, even after donating items, the concept might remain abstract for them. But talking to actual people and getting to know them, changes them from a group of people that kids don’t really understand to real people with names and stories and families that they can understand.
Help them see the impact
A significant finding from studies of adults is that they’ll derive greater happiness from their generosity—and thus be more motivated to give again—if they’re able to see the impact it has on others. In a study of toddlers, they seemed to enjoy giving a treat (Goldfish crackers) more than receiving one because they got to see the recipient of their generosity.
That’s why it’s suggested involving younger kids in forms of charity where they can make a more tangible connection between their actions and their positive impact. For instance, taking them to the grocery store to pick out some nutritious items, then delivering those items to a food bank, will make a greater impression on them than just setting aside a couple of dollars which, in theory, will go to help others but is not as tangible or concrete.
Make it part of who they are
Recent research suggests that when people give away something that has greater personal meaning or significance to themselves, they actually feel more committed to the cause they’re supporting and are more likely to keep supporting that cause down the line.
Giving and serving can be part of your identity, part of the activities you’re already passionate about. If you’re into the arts, find a way that you can use those talents. If you’re into sports, maybe you can organize a drive to give away sports equipment.
Give them choice
Decades of research has found that when people are forced to do something kind for others, or even subtly coerced to do it through an external reward, they’ll see themselves as less altruistic and thus feel less motivated to help others in the long run.
Instead, studies have found that people feel happier after performing kind, helpful—or “prosocial”—acts only when those acts are voluntary and self-directed; when they feel pressured to help, they feel worse.
Giving givers choice—encouraging them to give but allowing them to choose what they give to—can make a big difference in the well-being of the giver afterwards. And we want kids to grow up to be prosocial adults who will continue to give even after we’re not around to make them.