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Ask an expert: How do I teach my children about giving back?

As parents, we’re surrounded by advice on how to get our kids to eat vegetables, sleep through the night, and even how to share in the sandbox. But when it comes to figuring out how to teach our children about some of the more complex, nuanced aspects of life, it can be hard to know where to start. Especially when it comes to a topic we all want to teach our children about, but may not know how: That there are others in this world in need and there are ways we can help, by giving back however we can. 

We asked an expert for advice and it turns out, starting this conversation is easier than you may think. 

Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, a Regents Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, whose research focuses on altruism, empathy, and the moral development of children, explains that you are probably having the building blocks of this conversation with your child already – and the relationship to support it.

When teaching children anything, she says the most important thing is the relationship between parent and child.  “If that relationship is not good, then the kid is less likely to listen and internalize what the parent has to say,” Eisenberg says.

From there, says Eisenberg, it’s important to remember that any language used needs to be age-appropriate. But no matter the age of your child, she notes that research suggests that really simple language is the most effective in communicating and teaching anything related to a child’s emotional development.

“Pointing out the consequences of their emotions very simply and doing so with emotion yourself is very important. Emotion garners attention and denotes a statement to be important,” she says.

For toddler-age children, it’s important to remember that they have likely already developed a good amount of emotional language and internal space to process, discuss, and feel those emotions. And the first way to begin to teach children at that age about giving back is to teach them about the consequences of their own behavior and choices.

For example, whether a child hits someone or is teased themselves, ask them calmly, but emphatically, how that situation made them feel and how they imagine the other person involved felt, too? Encouraging your child to have these conversations with you is the best way to lay the foundation in developing emotional maturity, and a sense of moral obligation and empathy, in children. 

“These kinds of statements can help children at even a young age, and certainly as kids get older, for kids to understand the connection between actions and feelings,” says Eisenberg.

And when it comes to all parenting, and certainly when teaching about giving back, modeling is “most important,” says Eisenberg. “An empathetic and compassionate parent is a good model,” she emphasizes. “And a child will be much more invested in what the parent is teaching them if the parent is supportive and uses appropriate discipline with them.

In other words: Children need discipline to help them develop the emotional tools to manage their own feelings, so they can be best equipped to see and empathize with the pain of others and not be immobilized by it. They also need to see their parents modeling the behavior they are expected to mirror, like kindness towards others, volunteering your time, and giving back in many forms.

Children, Eisenberg says, learn about empathy through the context of how they themselves are treated and how they see the people around them treated. 

A favorite motto of ours, at FEED, the golden rule (aka, treat others the way you'd want to be treated). “Children model what they see," says Eisenberg. At the age of two, you can’t teach a child about charity, but you can teach a child about the right ways to treat other people and their family members.” 

Once children are a little older, you can then extend this by further modeling: Getting involved in activities that help your community and, when appropriate, bringing your children to help out, too.

If you don’t know where to start, look for opportunities at your local soup kitchen, food pantry or shelter. There are always opportunities available in your own community, which is a great place to literally start in giving back. For little ones, there are often ways they can be involved, even if it’s just packing or unpacking donations, until they are old enough to participate in a bigger way.

When you do begin to engage in these kinds of activities with your child, keep the conversation going. Explain in simple terms who the people are that you are helping, how they might be feeling, and why they feel that way. Then, talk to your child about their own feelings, too, in case they feel overwhelmed in beginning to navigate the feelings of others, especially those in need.  

Eisenberg also emphasizes that when teaching children about giving back, research indicates that it is important to tie these activities to the consequences they create for others, and not a parent’s own feelings or sense of approval.

Meaning, we shouldn't be teaching our children to give back because it pleases us, or even solely because it makes us feel good.

We should be teaching them by emphasizing the many ways we can give back, incorporating into daily life, and ultimately, focusing on the way it makes the person feel who is being helped, in terms that they can understand. 

Doing good (and being kind) is something we can all participate in. 


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