Lesson: Growing Generosity

(Scroll down for this month’s Q&A)

Casey:Alexander B'day‘Tis the season for the gimmies—the time of year that is ripe for parents to catastrophize about their children’s self-centeredness. There is no magic age when children suddenly start thinking of giving to others, but parents can prime the pump long before true generosity emerges.

Little children love giving. Babies want to mimic adult behavior and get great glee out of feeding the person who feeds them, handing precious objects to the caregiver who is willing to give them back, drawing picture after picture for someone they love. Parents have the job of gracefully transitioning their children from experiencing the pleasure of handing a toy to a crying child to thinking of the needs and wants of others and becoming generous human beings.

We want our children to experience the feeling of giving something to someone who is totally delighted by the offering. Nothing lights up a child’s face like presenting something they have found, thought up, or made and getting that look of surprise and appreciation from the receiver of the gift.

When holidays and birthdays roll around, encourage young children to offer a gift of themselves: A drawing, a private dance performance, a special stone found on a walk or a trip, a loved but no longer wanted toy, a dictated story about the person, a stick found in the shape of the person’s initial.

Giving an allowance as soon as your child is aware of and cares about money (typically around 7 or 8) is an important aspect of developing generosity. Some parents give a two or three part allowance: One for spending money, one for saving, and a third for a gift to a charity of their choice. An allowance teaches the child about the value of saving and spending money—as well as its role in giving. When children have experienced the benefits of saving up for something special (delayed gratification), they are probably ready to use some of their allowance on a gift for a parent, sibling or best friend. Perhaps you could offer some jobs for her to choose from to earn a little extra spending money. Then talk about how much seems reasonable to spend and what she could buy with that amount.

If she likes the idea of buying gifts, you can plan a special shopping trip so you can show her what types of things are in her budget. Your shopping trip can become a wonderful life skills lesson. Not to mention the fun of spending precious time together. After the shopping is done, treat your child to a hot chocolate at a favorite café and go over her purchases imagining what everyone will think when they open her presents.

Please and thank you are always welcome words to hear from your child. They are taught mostly from modeling. Always say please and thank you to your child from his pre-verbal years on. You will soon start hearing those words back. And when he forgets or his emotions provoke his demands, keep your reminders light by saying, “Please Mommy, may I have some milk?” when he says, “Milk, now!” or “Thank you, Mommy” as you are handing it to him. The modeling will work better than your demand that he say please or thank you.

When opening presents, your children will likely be so engrossed that thank yous are rare. You might wait until all are opened and then talk about the gifts. “Grandma gave you that great truck, didn’t she? I wonder what would make her feel good about giving it to you?”

And of course your own generosity and charity in both word and deed will teach more than you know. From helping out a sick friend to giving money to charity organizations and talking about them at the dinner table, to engaging your child in Secret-Santa Operations to buy gifts for needy children, etc., your attitudes and actions send strong messages about what you value. The ideas are endless.

Generosity is slow-growing and cumulative. Don’t push it or expect too much from your egocentric children. Remember, they want what they want when they want it. It takes maturity to understand that other people’s wishes are as important as their own.

Questions and Answers

Interfering Relatives

Q. With holiday family gatherings, how does one react when a family member shouts or reacts to your child’s behaviour in ways you don’t agree with?

A. Often family members think they have the right to discipline any children in the family and do so the way they would their own. Depending on your relationship, you might be able to advocate for your child at the moment saying that you will handle the situation and then take your child to another room. 

At the very least, talk to your child after the event and acknowledge how difficult that must have been to have grandpa yell at her. It’s fine to say that you probably would have felt hurt if you had been in her shoes. You could also ask her how it was for her, but ignoring it means she will take in the message she heard. Your acknowledging statements build a safe bridge for her to say how she felt if she wants to. Then ask her how she thinks she could handle it if it happens again. Don’t tell her what to do but encourage her to come up with her own idea. You can offer suggestions if she doesn’t know but telling her what to do is leading and projecting your agenda onto her.  

The goal is for her to feel validated for her experience, not to watch you express your anger or say what a bad person grandpa is. Then at some point I would suggest saying to the family member that you understand he was upset by your daughter’s behavior, that you certainly get that way too, but that what would be the biggest help to you would be to have his support and leave the actual management of behavior to you even when you don’t agree on how to handle it. Not easy to do. But you can often get somewhere when you ask for their help and support rather than blaming them for their behavior (same with your kids!)

Teaching Children to Give

Q. I have a 4 year old daughter and I am trying to begin early to instill a giving attitude. I didn’t grow up in a very giving home. My mom was very giving and serving to her family but other than family we didn’t do anything. (For example I can’t remember giving my teachers gifts) My mom was also very frugal and a hoarder which is also my nature. I have tried to get my daughter to pick out toys to give to needy children. I finally got her to sit down with me to find things to give away, but most are little trinky things that no other child would want. It is also hard for me to get rid of stuff because I put a value on them or remember who gave it to us and feel obligated to keep them. I am trying to be more giving and want to instill this into my children before they get older. I guess upon more thought I have trouble giving gifts / money but I do like serving. I have served food at a local homeless shelter, and I am just waiting for my children to get older so we can serve as a family. I have also adopted an elderly lady at a nursing home and I visit her over my lunch hour occasionally. But I still feel like I should be doing more and I want my daughters to want to do those things. My mom passed away a little over a year ago and shortly before she died she told me that her one regret was not being giving. So I guess out of honor to her memory it is very important for me to break the cycle. Any advice would be great!

A. If you look closely, I think you have answered your own question. You are very giving in your way of being giving-serving others. Do not minimize that. It doesn’t work to try to get your children to be giving in the way you think you should be. Model for them how you feel comfortable giving. You can certainly tell them your story-that you wish you were better at giving gifts or money, that you were not taught the value of that when you were young, and that you want to learn along with them. And remember that a four-year-old is utterly egocentric and will have a hard time giving away anything she still wants. It’s unrealistic to expect her to be a giver at this age. Serving as a family at the homeless shelter or including her on visits to your friend at the nursing home, perhaps cooking meals for friends in temporary need-watching you doing what you love and feel comfortable doing-is where the learning and values will come.

The Complainer

Q. I have a nine year old son who complains a lot. He wants to let us know every ache and pain he gets. We do pay attention to his complaints…I ask him questions & sometimes give him ibuprofen. He gets “growing pains”, so I know some of the pain is real. That’s the thing; I’m sure it’s all real, but I’m not sure how to handle it. My husband & I feel we indulge him w/our attention. He also has “a list of grievances,” at the end of a vacation, weekend or day.  If we go to an amusement park (he appears to be having fun), afterward it’s like he wants to assure us that he didn’t enjoy himself, and he’ll complain about minor details that resulted in his disappointment. My husband has started asking him to list a few good things that happened in addition to his complaints. My son has tested into the gifted & talented range at school, and I was told that gifted kids can be a little “quirky.” Any suggestions?

A. Gifted kids can be quirky. Your son is almost middle school age, which often brings physical complaints-stomach, sore throat, etc. I’m not sure if it’s stress related or age related. I think you’re looking for a balance between listening and teaching him to deal. Balance is good-don’t ever stop listening.

Try diagramming a “pain meter” and “good/bad meter” with your son. A pain meter would be, “Show me how you feel on a scale of 1-5 (1 being pain-free, 5 being really bad pain that requires a doctors attention). He will likely not want to go to the doctors so you likely won’t hear 5 very much. You could set the numbers with him when he is feeling fine, i.e. #1 is something he can deal with himself, #2 requires a mommy-kiss, #3 requires a bandaid or ibuprofen and an extra snuggle, #4 is a temperature and requires a day or so at home, #5 requires a doctors appointment/hospital visit (of course you determine the number categories as is best for you). Then talk with him about how he must use the meter honestly so you will know the best thing to do. Create a chart together so that every physical complaint can be written under a particular number. Talk it over quite thoroughly with him. The goal is for him to know you take it all seriously and that you as his mother need his honesty because it is his body and you cannot know how it feels. His body is his responsibility, but now he must be very clear with you since you are the ones to help him until he can help himself.

The good and bad meter can be used in the same way and can use your husbands idea to ask for good things as well. Again, design it together. My guess is after awhile, he may subside a bit. The most important thing is that he gets that you get him before you can tell him that enough is enough. That is important also, but he will keep forcing his point until he knows you are on his side. You can do all that without indulging him. Just keep letting him know that you need the truth about how he feels and that he must not abuse the meter method.

Story

After being asked to get dressed for school this morning my daughter screamed, “I hate going to school!” and stomped off. Despite all the thoughts rolling through my head (but you love school, but your school is so amazing, you’d better appreciate your school because we pay lots of money for you to go there, etc.), I just said “Yeah, I used to hate going to school sometimes too. And you know what? Sometimes I even hate going to work.” As if I had waved a magic wand my daughter smiled at me and relaxed. As she got dressed we talked about tough mornings I had as a child. In 10 minutes she was dressed, hair brushed and ready to go – no further whining, crying or harrumphing. Wow! Thank you Bonnie for teaching me this technique. 

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