We live in the age of selfies, where bullying is on the rise and civility is on the decline. Not-so-subtle societal messages tell us that our worth is defined by material possessions or by approval from social media “friends,” some of whom we barely know. In such a hands-off environment, it is easy to retreat from others or to believe that we are the center of our own worlds.
Ironically, experts tell us that the acceptance and achievement we crave can come from focusing on others. Since empathy is a strong predictor of future success, our children may be better off cultivating a giving spirit, Rather than chasing recognition or developing an individual “brand.” Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me-World, (Touchstone; 2017) believes this. Borba says that “the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction and the ability to bounce back from diversity.”
Children Are Born to Care
Children are hard-wired with the spirit of giving. That’s apparent in the toddler who weeps at the sight of an upset playmate. Or the preschooler who offers her teddy bear to a sick sibling. Yet, as they grow, children receive society’s clear message that it’s sometimes unsafe or unwise to care.
Fortunately, families have the power to foster empathy. Research shows that caregivers who openly express warmth and compassion raise more kind-hearted children. This process begins at birth and is intuitive. Routinely giving a patient, timely and consistent response to an infant’s cries or a toddler’s skinned knee tells that child that helping others is important. Once a child is secure that the world is a safe and loving place, it’s easier for them to develop empathy.
Experts say that the first opportunity for a child to help others is in their own home. Therefore, they recommend assigning household responsibilities. “Children need jobs,” says author and pediatrician Dr. William Sears. “Once a child learns a sense of responsibility for the household, a sense of responsibility to society will come naturally in the next stage of development.”
Kids Who Help Others Help
Children who reach out to others enjoy an increased sense of well-being, self-worth and optimism. Helping others builds up a child’s defense system against temptation and stress. Kids learn that it feels good to do the right thing, so it’s easier for them to say no to the wrong things. Since their personal worth is reinforced by their kindness toward others, they don’t need to search for it in material possessions or in poor choices.
Even The Busiest Families Can Fold Giving Into Their Schedules
Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family’s Guide To Volunteering: Do Good , Have Fun, Make a Difference as a Family Together (Gryphon House; 2003), says that finding time to help others is easier than you may think. For example, families who already enjoy crafts can make get well cards or toys. Supplies for a neighbor in need can be gathered while doing your own errands. Families who are animal lovers may enjoy fostering an animal for deployed military.
Experts suggest starting small, with a one-time/no further obligation commitment. If all family members enjoy the experience and want to repeat it, consider adding on. But always be conscious of overcommitting. Studies show that when giving feels overwhelming or obligatory, the potential benefits are lost. It’s much easier (and more comfortable) to increase your commitment when you have more time than to cut back and feel guilty because you’ve taken on too much.
Teaching children to care and to offer their time and their talents to others is a win-win situation. Developing a child’s innate giving spirit helps them find purpose and satisfaction. It is the gift that keeps giving because they will likely teach empathy to their own children so that compassion will thrive in your family for years to come.