I relish the end-of-year news stories that highlight inspiring acts of generosity—the veteran who donated his bone marrow to save a preschooler with leukemia or the restaurant staff who pooled their money to buy a car for a coworker after his was stolen. These stories are moving because they seem to be about ordinary people being extraordinarily generous.
I also share stories like this with my son—and point out everyday acts of generosity—in the hopes that he, too, will grow up to be an extraordinarily generous person. Apart from making toddlers happier, generosity may also help us build trust and stronger social ties and even improve our physical health—including our blood pressure and sleep quality.
Of course, there are plenty of times when my son has absolutely no interest in giving his firetruck or LEGOs to his buddies. That’s not only OK; it’s totally expected when you’re in preschool (it’s also sometimes true of adults and their favorite things!). But for parents like me who want to nudge their kids toward generosity, recent research offers some insights and practical tips.
1. Read books about people showing generosity
Children’s stories have long been used as a way to teach kids about what their culture values. In a recent study with four to six year olds, children were read three kinds of stories: picture books featuring either generous animal characters, generous human characters, or (as a comparison) plant seeds. Before and after reading the stories, the researchers measured children’s generosity by giving them stickers and allowing them to share with an anonymous child at their school who supposedly didn’t get any. The children were more generous—they shared more stickers—after they heard uplifting stories about humans.
Kids tend to generalize into their real life what they’ve learned from realistic stories more than fantastic stories, the researchers found. So ask children’s librarians to help you find books that highlight generosity by human protagonists from around the world, rather than animals.
Corky Klimczak of the Collaborative for Educational Services, one of the Greater Good Parenting Initiative grantees, suggests the following children’s books about generosity: Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora, Biblioburro by Jeanette Winter, Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco, and Something Special for Me by Vera Williams. (But don’t rush to throw out your kids’ animal or fantasy stories; they can help with instilling a love for reading and engage kids’ imagination.)
2. Tell your kids to “do the right thing”
It matters what you say to inspire kids to be generous. In another recent study, researchers Bailey House and Michael Tomasello compared three ways to influence children’s generosity. Nearly 250 six to 11 year olds in Germany watched a video of an adult saying either what is “right” to do, what the rule is, or what the majority do when sharing. Then, the researchers measured children’s generosity by giving them a choice to anonymously share gummy bears, stickers, or coins with other children at their school whom they didn’t know.
They found that children were more generous when they had seen an adult saying the “right” thing to do compared to the other messages. These findings suggest that kids are both aware of and act according to what are considered the social standards of their culture.
If your family values generosity, explain to your kids why it’s the right thing to do. Show them what it means to be generous within the family and in their community, such as by supporting their local animal shelter or food bank. Explain how to be a global citizen by teaching them about opportunities to be generous to organizations that provide health care, clean water, and food to families in humanitarian crisis such as in Yemen. When they are faced with an opportunity to share with or give to others, talk about your confidence that they’ll be generous and do what’s right.
3. Teach your kids to practice gratitude
Can gratitude help kids be more generous? In a recent study, Lan Nguyen Chaplin and her colleagues randomly assigned 11 to 17 year olds to write daily journals about gratitude or the day’s activities. At the end of two weeks, a researcher gave the adolescents ten $1 bills for being a part of the study and told them they could keep all the money or make an anonymous donation of any size (by putting the money in a locked box after the researcher left the room). The young participants also filled out surveys measuring how materialistic they were before and after journaling for two weeks.
Compared to the kids in the regular journal group, the researchers found that kids in the gratitude journal group were significantly more generous—they donated 60 percent more of their money—and became less materialistic. Chaplin and her colleagues write, “Fostering a grateful disposition should enhance generosity by making individuals more aware of the generosity they have received from others.”
To help your kids notice generosity from others, teach the older ones to make a habit of spotting times they are thankful and writing about them in a gratitude journal. Talk about the deeper meaning of gratitude—how it involves someone doing something for them on purpose and at a cost so that they can gain some benefit. Prompt them to think about three instances from their day—a person, an experience, an event—for which they feel thankful. Tell them to write about the details of what happened and who was involved.
For younger kids, adopt a family gratitude practice of talking about three good things that happen to you each day—during the ride home from school, at dinner time, or right before bed. Help your younger kids understand gratitude more deeply by guiding them to make links between noticing the good things and feeling happy about them, to thinking about how they came to be and doing something to show gratitude.
Although news headlines on generosity are abundant during the holidays, I’ll also keep a lookout for stories of everyday acts of kindness to share with my family throughout the year. Highlighting these stories and teaching our kids to be generous contribute to a culture of giving that I hope will spread throughout all our communities.