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The lessons I learned trying to teach my child generosity

The brothers, with Foxy. (Lauren Knight)

My second-born son Oliver has a serious affinity for stuffed animals. He takes such tender care of them, wrapping them in blankets when it is chilly, hauling them around on errands, baby-talking them when he thinks no one else is listening, lining them up just so next to his bed, and tucking them lovingly in every single night.

That is why, when my oldest son Milo walked past a gift shop when we were out one day just the two of us, I was touched when he noted how much his brother would love the little stuffed gray fox in the window. I took him by the hand and turned him around, giddy with the thought of the lesson in store. After telling him that we could get the little gift for his brother, we headed inside. Unfortunately, the lesson didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped.

Once inside, Milo saw something he would like to buy for himself, and asked if we could get that too. “Not this time,” I hedged, noting the look of disappointment on his face, “This time, let’s just surprise Oliver. It will mean so much to him that you thought of him.” Tears streamed down his face as he handed the money over to the baffled cashier, and we headed out, both feeling miserable and disappointed. On the car ride home, I tried my best to explain how important it was to give little gifts to the people you love, especially out of the blue, to show them how much they mean to you, how much you appreciate them. But Milo sulked in the back, focused on what he had not gotten. I had wanted desperately for him to feel that excitement and anticipation of the look of joy and surprise on his brother’s face at moment he was handed that little token of love.

When we arrived home, Milo reluctantly handed the little fox over to Oliver and muttered, “I’m glad you’re my brother,” under his breath before heading up to his room to work through the complicated emotions he was feeling. I’m afraid he missed the shear joy his brother took in accepting the gift.

Later, however, when he returned downstairs, he was inundated with praise and gratitude from Oliver, who kept repeating, “Thank you so much, Milo! I love it!” while smiling from ear to ear. I could sense a softening around Milo’s edges, and eventually I caught him smiling as he watched Oliver swaddle the cherished toy in the very same baby blanket in which I had swaddled him six years ago.

As I watched the scene unfold, a thought came to me; what if the act of giving doesn’t come naturally or easily, but instead requires practice and patience? What if our children have to acquire a taste for giving, much like they acquire their taste for a particular vegetable through repeated exposure to its flavor and texture? Should we set our children up to experience how it feels to be generous, or should we let them come to it on their own?

It is true that giving gifts can help strengthen relationships among siblings. Studies on human behavior by psychologists, anthropologists, economists, and marketers all find that gift-giving is a “surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends.” And it is the giver, not the recipient, who experiences the biggest psychological rewards from the exchange. The gift giver experiences positive changes in brain chemistry, an increase in endorphins and a feeling of euphoria during and after giving a gift. According to Jeffrey Froh, Psy.D., of Hofstra University, and Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., helping others and being generous are essential for creating grateful, connected children. Feeling connected to those they are helping leads them to develop and value social relationships. Within a family, where siblings often compete with each other for attention, such connections are essential for healthy family life.

So what are the secrets to creating a positive giving experience for our children? It may have more to do with choice than I had originally thought.

Research by Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan found that college students reported higher levels of happiness on days that they had done something helpful or kind for others, but only when those actions felt self-chosen. Such self-chosen prosocial acts can even be seen in brain scans, according to a study at the University of Oregon; the reward centers of the brain were activated during the act of giving money, but turned out to be considerably greater when the person giving viewed the act as a choice rather than a mandatory charitable action.

One way to broach this issue with a child would be to say, “It is your choice whether or not you give your brother this gift,” rather than, “I really think you should give your brother this gift.” Making such a choice also ensures that the giver will feel a stronger sense of connection to the receiver, which is the whole point, after all.

That’s not to say that providing opportunities to think of others and to be charitable should always come directly from the source. If given the choice, most young children would choose to gift a desired item to themselves rather than others. It is part of their psychological and developmental nature to be a bit selfish, and we as parents should never make them feel guilty for this.

However, I’m willing to bet that with a little encouragement and a little practice, we can teach our children to be more giving, and in doing so, expose them to the wonderful benefits of generosity. And as such a skill will last them well into adulthood, transferring into many different relationships, it’s one taste worth acquiring.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Crumb Bums.

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