It’s the nature of children to be self-involved. Their world is comparatively small, consisting of family, classmates, and teachers. It’s normal for children to see themselves as the most important person in that world, which may appear to be selfish, but it’s perfectly normal.
Science Daily cited a study that showed kids’ brains had to reach a certain level of maturity for them to start thinking of others. “The results suggest that egocentric behavior in children is … due to an immature prefrontal cortex that does not support altruistic behavior when faced with a situation that has a strong self-serving incentive.”
Happily, humans are born to be kind and empathetic. According to a report on National Public Radio (NPR), “We have neurons in our brains, called mirror neurons, and they respond in the same way when we experience pain, say by being pricked with a needle, as they do when we see someone else experience the same thing.
“But kindness is about more than sensing someone else’s pain. It’s also about wanting to do something about it — and then actually being helpful,” and that’s something that parents can teach their children. As a child’s prefrontal cortex develops—starting around the age of six—parents can help to transform their children’s empathy into compassion.”
Compassion and altruism—an unselfish regard for the welfare of others—are crucial and rewarding character traits in successful adults. It’s also what makes us human. Apes don’t have the ability to be selfless. According to a Stanford study, an ape will always choose to do that which will benefit themselves. Humans very often choose to do that which will benefit others.
No matter what age your children may be, it’s never too soon—or too late—to teach them the importance of giving. Besides benefiting others, altruism will have a profoundly positive effect on your children. Psychology Today lists these benefits:
Altruism Increases Personal Happiness – Often, young people fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on their own needs. This narcissistic tendency is a breeding ground for depression or anxiety. Altruism breaks through the hard shell of self-absorption by nurturing compassion for others.
Altruism Fosters a Healthy Sense of Interconnectedness – Isolation breeds unhappiness. Visit any high school lunchroom and you’ll see that kids yearn to be part of a community. The need to feel connected to others is supported by research which found that people valued gifts they purchased for others more than gifts they bought for themselves. Generosity gave birth to a healthy sense of interconnectedness, which boosted their own personal happiness.
Altruism Strengthens Personal Identity – Many young people’s sense of personal identity is strengthened when they help others. Altruism triggers a surge in self-esteem which promotes confidence and assurance, reinforcing a child’s positive view of themselves.
Altruism Inspires a Sense of Mission – Young people often feel lost. Unsure of their future, they struggle with feelings of emptiness and indifference. Altruism inspires them by directing their attention outward and providing an opportunity to experience the value of helping others.
As every parent knows, it’s always best to teach by example. Even if parents don’t currently participate in community service, volunteering to help whatever organization you and your child choose should be a family affair. PBS for Parents has the following suggestions:
Be a Giving Role Model – Children love to copy their parents, so let them follow your lead as a volunteer. When a parent or guardian is involved, the child often looks forward to the activity even more, and you get to share this special time with your child. A community cleanup is a great way to get the whole family involved, no matter what age.
Find Something Fun – Community service doesn’t have to be a chore. Find something that interests your entire family. Look for something that matches your family’s dynamics. Many children love animals, so find an animal shelter or wildlife rescue that needs donations of food, towels, or allows volunteers to walk the dogs.
Start With Something Easy – Volunteering doesn’t have to take all day if you don’t want it to. Pick up a gift for a toy drive or Adopt-a-Family program. You can take five minutes and ask your child to go through toys and clothing in your house that they don’t use anymore. Although children may first resist giving up their possessions, they may get excited about the idea of helping when they see how much another child loves the toys your child has outgrown.
Make it Part of the Family Schedule – Family life can be busy so you may have to build volunteering into your schedule so that it becomes a priority. Making it part of the family routine, will instill the notion that your family places a high value on giving their time and helping those in need. Plus, since it’s a family thing, make sure that your children have a say in the activity your family chooses.
Learn From Previous Generations – Senior centers are great for older children to spend time talking, reading, or even watching TV with seniors who may not have relatives living nearby. Another way to interact with and learn from older generations is to deliver meals to homebound individuals through Meals on Wheels, which even has the opportunity in some cities to do your deliveries on bike instead of in the car.
Enlist Your Child’s Friends – Once you catch the giving spirit, consider asking your child’s friends to join in. You can build care packages for the troops overseas or for homeless shelter residents. Or, get your extended family involved by calling Grandma, Grandpa, aunts and uncles and ask each one to pick up sample-size toiletries or other items that would go nicely in a package. When everyone is on board, your child can see how important giving is to friends and family.
See the Impact – Volunteering or doing community service can benefit your child tremendously, as well as help create a family bond. For some children, a simple smile or “thank you” from the recipient goes a long way in making them feel good about what they’ve done. Discuss the volunteer experience with your child after the fact, to help him process what he learned. Also, remember to reinforce the positive message that you’re trying to instill.
Here are some activities in which families can engage and which will benefit the community:
- Clean up a park or the bank of a river
- Plant trees or flowers in your local community
- Serve food at a homeless shelter
- Deliver meals to people who are elderly or ill at home
- Clean up a school or other public building
- Make Valentine’s Day cards for senior citizens
- Donate kids’ craft kits to a local children’s hospital
- Gather your child’s friends and some classic games and organize a board game night at your local nursing home
- Decorate placemats for Meals on Wheels
- Go through the books your children feel they’ve outgrown and donate them to the waiting room of a local dentist or doctor
- Donate gently used stuffed animals your child feels they can part with to a local firehouse or police station for children in emergency situations
- Make Care Kits for the homeless; the kits might include band aids, sunscreen, beef jerky, toothbrush, toothpaste, and wet wipes