A few days ago, my 4-year-old told me he was finished with his dinner. “OK,” I said. “But before you clear your plate, let me give the rest of your fish to your sister.” Suddenly, he decided he was starving again. God forbid he inadvertently give anything to his younger sibling, even a half-eaten piece of cold fish he doesn’t want.
Around the holidays, I often wonder what I can do to foster altruism in my kids. It’s the season of giving, but it feels like the season of obsessing over what’s going to be received. Can I help my kids become a little less self-absorbed and a little more generous toward others—especially those who might not have as much as we do? And if I’m going to talk about charitable giving, how do I explain why some people are better off than others?
First, to parents of young children, I offer a little reassurance: Research shows that kids naturally get more generous as they get older. Well, actually, they start out pretty eager (my 17-month-old loves to unload the dishwasher, which of course is not helpful at all because she is always unloading it when it is dirty, but whatever, it’s cute), and then their charitableness often tapers off, as my 4-year-old illustrates regularly (but I promise, he’s sweet much of the time, too). Then, yes, their altruism does ramp back up again, thanks to kids’ growing ability to empathize, their increasing awareness and acceptance of social norms, their developing sense of morality, and the fact that adults start to expect more from them.
But research suggests there are things parents can do to help the process along. First, we can encourage empathy. The more easily our kids can put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand what they feel and experience, the more generous they will be. Hey, it worked for Scrooge, right?
One way to encourage empathy is by prompting your kids to think and talk about others’ emotions. One 2012 study found that kids as young as 18 months were more likely to share and help others when they had parents who asked them to label and explain emotions depicted in books, saying things like: Is he happy in this picture? or Point to the happy one. And a 2003 study found that toddlers of mothers who encouraged them to label emotions showed more concern for others in distress.
How we discipline our children when they do something mean or harmful may also make a difference. Psychologists have long believed that disciplining by focusing on the victim—talking to your child about the consequences of his actions on others—can help kids develop empathy and kindness. How do you think hitting Annie on the head with that pine cone made her feel? may be more useful than Since you did that, you’re not going to get any dessert tonight, in part because the first approach gets your child to focus on the other person, while the second causes your kid to think yet again of himself. Also, encourage your child to make the other kid feel better—not just by apologizing (though that’s certainly good), but also by having him ask the other child what he can do to make her happy. A 1975 study found that fifth-graders who were disciplined by their parents in this way (bizarrely, it was only the opposite-sex parent’s techniques that seemed to matter) were described by their peers as being more altruistic. And a 1979 study that tracked the behavior of 16 toddlers, ages 18 months to 30 months, over the course of nine months found that the kids of moms who disciplined by focusing on the victims were more likely to help or offer things to people who were hurt.
Researchers have also found that the language adults use to label kids’ behavior can affect how kind and helpful they decide to be. In a 2014 study, social psychologist Christopher Bryan and his colleagues found that 3- to 6-year-olds were more likely to help adults when they were asked to be “helpers” as opposed to when they were asked “to help.” The distinction may sound subtle, but the psychological effects likely aren’t: Using the word helper may “signal that the behavior is reflective of a person’s essential underlying character,” explains Bryan, who is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. If kids adopt this helper persona—and most do, because they like to think of themselves as good—they will then behave in ways that are consistent with this identity. (In a complementary experiment conducted in adults, Bryan found that asking people not to “be cheaters” was more effective than asking them not “to cheat,” probably again because people do not want to adopt the negative cheater persona.)
Bryan’s findings parallel those from a 1980 study in which University of Toronto psychologists Joan Grusec and Erica Redler found that 7- and 8-year-olds were more likely to give away the prizes they had won to other children if the winners had been described by an adult as “a nice and helpful person” rather than told that giving the prizes away would be “a nice and helpful thing to do.” As Grusec explained to me, “It works to tell children that they have a particular kind of personality—which then promotes similar behavior in other similar situations—rather than just to focus on an isolated act.”
You may have heard, such as from this 2007 New York piece by Po Bronson, that this kind of approach could backfire, and it’s true. A study led by Andrei Cimpian at Stanford found in 2007 that kids handled criticism about their drawings more poorly if they had previously been called “good drawers” rather than told they “did a good job drawing.” One of Cimpian’s co-authors, psychologist Carol Dweck, has published other work showing that it can be problematic to praise children’s traits or abilities (you are really good at math) and that it’s better to praise for effort (it was great that you worked so hard on that math problem). The reason? These kinds of trait attributions can cause problems if kids later have trouble doing whatever they’ve been told they are good at. If you’ve praised your kid for her math ability, and she later struggles with a math problem, she may blame herself, lose confidence, or decide that she isn’t good at math after all. All this said, the “helper” label is probably fine because helping is all about effort anyway—your kid can’t ever really feel that she’s failed at it—but it might not be wise to start attributing everything awesome that your kid does to her underlying character.
Amid all these tricks, however, keep in mind that the most powerful tool you have is you. Be a good model for your kids, because they are little copycats. A number of studies have shown that kids are more likely to share or give winnings away when they see other people do the same; other research has shown that altruistic kids tend to have altruistic parents. So offer to help friends, strangers, and family members who need it; bring your kids with you to pick out toys for the charity toy drive; volunteer at a charity event with your kids by your side. Be big-hearted, and your kids will be, too.
Consider also talking to your kids about social inequality. As I explained in my column on race, children often make implicit assumptions about group differences that parents need to address, even though broaching the subject can be uncomfortable. When kids hear about “poor people” without being given additional context, they may conclude that this is “a category of people who are different from us and have different traits,” explains Melanie Killen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland College of Education. When kids (and adults, for that matter) think of a group of people as fundamentally different from them, they can develop stereotypes and prejudices about that group.
And research suggests that kids do develop negative stereotypes about impoverished people. In a 1989 study, a University of Colorado researcher showed adolescents photos of strangers and described each one as either poor, wealthy, or neutral. The teens who were told the stranger was wealthy assumed that he was more intelligent, got better grades, made friends more easily, and embodied more positive traits in general compared with the teens who were told the person was poor or neutral. And a 2012 study reported that first-graders think of rich individuals as more competent than poor individuals.
To combat these unfortunate stereotypes, “help your child understand that these groups are very big groups of people, and there is a lot of variation within them,” Killen explains. And as for causes of wealth differences, “talk about circumstances and situations rather than traits,” she suggests, and explain that these circumstances can change. Finally, if you are in the wealthy (or even just comfortable) camp yourself, it may also be helpful to try to explain the factors that shaped your family’s privilege: We’re fortunate because lots of things enabled us to have so much.
You may find, as I did when I broached this subject with my 4-year-old a few days ago, that your child has a lot of misconceptions about money and inequality that you can begin to dispel. (He said he thought money grew on trees—literally. Oh, to be a preschooler again!) The discussion may inadvertently make your kid feel more generous, too: After I described to my son some of the reasons our family is so fortunate, he said he would like us to buy some extra toys and give them away to kids who don’t have quite as much. He still loathes the idea of sharing anything with his sister, but hey. This is a start.