Around this time each year, many children have made a Christmas wish list that includes items like toys, games, crafts and electronics. While children may express gratitude and joy in response to receiving gifts, the concept of generosity of spirit has certainly changed over the years.
It was St. Nicholas’s legendary status of generosity that gave rise to the modern-day tradition of Santa Claus. As the story goes, as a young boy, St. Nicholas was left with a substantial amount of inheritance when his parents died. He used this to help others, primarily the poor.
St. Nicholas was generous. Generosity is defined as the quality of being kind and giving time, attention or gifts to others without conditions or the expectation of getting something in return. Being generous is seen as a positive virtue in people and has links with other emotions such as empathy and compassion.
Parental behaviour matters
The roots of generosity, such as empathy, compassion and prosocial behavior, begin to develop in the toddler years.
One study of charitable giving by children shows that boys and girls give equally. Research also shows that by the age of nine most children have a good understanding of generosity. As with all aspects of development, as the child ages, greater understanding and mastery of generosity will unfold.
What role do parents play in socializing children to be more generous? One way is by showing generosity themselves. Research shows that a parent’s level of generosity and charitable behaviour is correlated with their child’s display of the same behaviours.
Modelling generosity makes an impression on children and is thus a great first step to fostering this behaviour. Siblings can also effectively role model empathy and compassion, and by extension, generosity.
Another way is to talk with children about generosity. Studies have shown that having family discussions about generosity had a stronger influence on children’s charitable behaviour than parent role modelling alone.
Five ways to help foster generosity
Give experiences. Gifts do not always need to come in the form of material possessions. Giving experiences can be of value as well. This can include time with caregivers, such as a set of tickets that children can “turn in” to bake together, do arts and crafts, go skating, swimming, hiking or to a movie or the theatre. These experiences are also opportunities to discuss the value of family connection and making memories.
Give to those in need. Discuss the legend of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) and his spirit of giving to those who are less fortunate. Encourage children to add a gift to someone in need to their Christmas or birthday wish list, or to give used or unused material possessions (such as toys, books or clothing) to those without.
Give without expecting anything in return. The core concept of generosity is to give without conditions. Show children that being charitable is unconditional. Several reputable local, national and international organizations have charitable gift-giving programs for children in need (for example, providing water purification tablets and school supplies).
Give the gift of time. Together with your children, come up with a list of ways they could give their time to someone else. This could be shovelling someone’s driveway, weeding a neighbour’s garden or cleaning up his or her local park. They could also give their time to an organization in need of volunteers (for example a soup kitchen).
Give year round. Generosity and kindness shouldn’t just happen over the holidays. Make these concepts part of your everyday family life and try to schedule acts of kindness together. At the dinner table, ask your children: “Can you tell me a time today you showed kindness?” You can also talk about how, as a parent, you showed kindness or generosity to someone in your professional or personal life that day.
Giving gifts is certainly part of being generous, but as we all know, the holidays can also be a time of stress and panic about getting the right gift, navigating the shopping mania in stores, and frankly, just paying for everything. All is not lost, however — there are other narratives parents can use around kids when it comes to generosity.