Mercy Minute: How to Inspire Generosity in Children

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by Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, healthychildren.org

It’s important to help our children understand the need to give back, provide, share, and act generously. If we (as parents) act generously in front of children, they will learn how to give more freely.

Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware of Their Actions

Researchers set up an experiment in which 5-year-olds were tested with their peers under differing circumstances of transparency and differing audiences (ie, if others could see into the container). They set up a sticker machine that in some settings was transparent (the child giving and child receiving could see how many stickers were up for grabs), and other settings in which only the giver of stickers knew how many stickers he could give. They had children give out stickers in both settings (transparent and opaque), being able to see the recipient or not.

The results were striking: children were consistently generous only when the recipient and audience of the stickers were fully aware of the donation options (4 stickers over 1 sticker, for example). Children were notably ungenerous when the recipient of stickers couldn’t see the options whatsoever. Having an audience present (seeing the recipient) and having the number of stickers be transparent affected children’s decisions to give. The researchers wrote, “One striking aspect of our results is that children were considerably ungenerous in our task. Indeed, children only showed consistently prosocial behavior in our study in the condition when they could see the recipient and their allocations were fully visible; in all other conditions, children were statistically ungenerous, giving the recipient the smaller amount of stickers.”

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Fostering Generosity at an Early Age

Recognize that children are influenced by how their generosity is observed and understood. Children may often think about giving under the lenses of competition.

It is known that when competitive constructs are present, children are less generous. So are adults. Therefore, we can help young children understand when competition is present and when it isn’t. If a soccer game really isn’t a tally of total goals, tell children implicitly. Allow them to learn how to pass the ball and share as teammates early and often. When they are set to compete, let that be clear. But allow situations of play and giving not to be about winning too.

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