What Your Kids Can Teach You About Altruism

What Your Kids Can Teach You About Altruism

‘Tis better to give than to receive…. but does this apply to kids? Our impulse, especially during the holidays, is often to spoil them to the greatest extent possible. Retailers have us convinced that Christmas is all about kids and their enjoyment of consumer goods. Child development experts talk to us about cultivating an altruistic nature in our children and some suggest that children are inherently selfish, so it’s important for adults to teach kids about giving. But recent research finds that kids can teach us a lot about altruism.

Hot New Toy

That hot new toy? Yeah, you’ll stand in line outside a box store in the cold, dark, wee morning hours to get it. When you aren’t able to get it on Black Friday, you’ll spend the next three weeks going from store to store and bribing employees until you finally procure Hot New Toy. And then, five days before Christmas, Little Jimmy sits on the mall Santa’s lap and says, “Naw, I don’t want that toy after all. I want a (insert any other impossible to get toy here).” So you get on eBay with your credit card and spend $300 for a toy that normally sells for $25 retail. And you fork over $49 for overnight shipping. Just so Little Jimmy will have a wonderous gleam in his eyes on Christmas morning.

You. Are a sucker.

True Happiness

Turns out, if your goal was for Jimmy to be happy, you might have just wasted $349 and countless hours of precious time. A study this year by the University of British Columbia showed that kids are actually happiest when they’re giving… not receiving. Toddlers who were given goldfish crackers were rated as happier when giving them away than when simply eating them. Other studies have shown that older children and adults rate themselves happiest when giving.

Toddlers and Treats

OK, sometimes toddlers are selfish. They don’t always like to share their toys and their favorite word often seems to be, “Mine!” But for every episode of “No! Gimmee my toy back… it’s mine!,” you’ll find another instance of your child wanting to give.

My own son displayed this characteristic early on as a toddler. Every Wednesday, we’d drop his older brother off at preschool and head to the grocery store. If he was a good helper, Jordan was allowed to choose a treat at the cash register (yeah, it was blatant bribery. I’m sure there are lots of other studies about how bribing toddlers is great parenting). All throughout the trip, Jordan was excited about choosing his treat. But when we finally got down to it, he wouldn’t immediately pick something for himself. Instead, he’d start putting candy bars in the cart, saying, “One for Daddy. And one for Grandma. And one for Aunt Libby. And one for brother…” and on and on until I finally stopped the madness of buying candy bars for everyone we knew. When we left the store, Jordan would insist on driving to Grandma’s house to hand out candy bars; then he’d wait eagerly to give Daddy and brother their treats.

Santa’s got nothing on Erica.

When she was eleven, my niece dreamt of having her own horse. She drew pictures of horses, wrote stories about horses and cared for the neighbor’s horses every opportunity she got. So for Christmas that year, her parents decided to surprise her with her dream gift.

Erica’s little brothers were still Santa believers. She was recruited to help choose and shop for the “Santa presents” and helped her parents wrap them on Christmas eve after her brothers had gone to sleep.

On Christmas morning, Erica watched as the boys opened gift after gift. She received a book and a pair of muck boots, which she was told would come in handy when she cleaned out the neighbor’s stable. She was excited about the boots and spent the morning talking about visiting the neighbor’s horses.

When the family went to church, they still hadn’t taken Erica out to the barn to see her real gift. During the service, she turned to her mom and said, “This is the best Christmas ever! Did you see my brothers’ faces when they opened their stuff? It was awesome!”

Of course, when she saw her new horse, Erica was over the moon. But even with a much smaller gift, she was already happy.

Holiday Happiness

This holiday season, if you want to make your kids truly happy, focus on ways that they can find joy through giving. Here are a few ideas:

  • Get them involved in the gift planning and purchasing. Let them help decide what should be given to everyone on your list this year. Take them shopping, then have them help wrap presents.
  • Donate or volunteer to help others. If kids are old enough, ask them to find a charitable cause to help this year.
  • Enable gift giving between siblings. Kids like to be able to give gifts to others; you can help by taking them shopping or providing materials for them to create handmade gifts for siblings.

Worry less about the stuff and more about the season.

Don’t go crazy trying to buy your kids everything you think they want. Instead, focus on spending time together as a family and finding ways to give to others. Your kids won’t suffer if you don’t buy the latest gaming system. In fact, if you provide ways for kids to give, they just might teach you a thing or two about altruism.