Generosity: Inherited or Learned? (Dr. Daniel Trussell)

BTAboutThemIn numerous studies across the globe parents report that their number one goal is to raise children who are prosocial: generous, compassionate and empathetic. High life achievement through material success ranks much lower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome children are naturally able to express generosity and compassion at a very early age. Most do not. While research from identical twin studies suggests that between 25 and 50% of the propensity to be a generous person is inherited, there is ample opportunity to teach almost all children to become prosocial.

What Studies Tell Us
In a 2015 study, Paulus and Moore observed that when children between the ages of 3 and 6 are guided to talk about feeling of being left out or included related to sharing, those children tend to exhibit greater generosity than children who are merely offered the opportunity to share without a discussion of feelings related to being included or excluded.

Other researchers found that during the first two years of life, children who are encouraged to talk about feelings are more emotionally intelligent and can better anticipate the emotional state of others. This in turn contributes to greater capacity to offer generosity as children age.

And, for 7 to 11 year olds, it has been found that the capacity to express generosity is linked to the development of moral judgment – an ability to experience compassion and mercy.

Two Interventions
Two factors that influence the capacity for generosity are modeling and “preaching.” There is little evidence that preaching or lecturing has much short-term effect, but it has been found to be effective in the long run.

DTrussellCompelling support for these two interventions was demonstrated in a recent study that included elementary and middle school students. A “teacher” demonstrated sharing tokens won in a game by donating them all to a needy family, donating some to a needy family or donating none to a needy family accompanied with a lecture about the value of selfishness or generosity or no preaching at all.

A control group simply played the game without a “teacher” demonstration or commentary. Following the game they were asked if they wanted to donate some tokens to a needy family and this established a baseline of giving.

When the experimental students were given an opportunity to play the game to collect tokens and were then asked if they wanted to donate, results were surprising. When the teacher modeled generosity whether preached to or not, students gave 85% more than the control group. Moreover, when the teacher acted in a generous manner but preached about the value of selfishness, students still gave 49% more than the control group. This certainly suggests that actions speak louder than words.

In all the studies above it is likely that negative bias played a strong role. Negative bias is the concept that behavior is more strongly influenced by the desire to avoid negative emotions than by a desire to make another happy.

Importance of Parental Influence
This leads us to consider the importance of personalizing praise and direction when teaching young kids about generosity. For example, directing your child by saying “don’t lie” is less effective than saying “don’t be a liar.” Likewise repeated statements of “good job” have minimal impact whereas statements like “you are a kind person” when a young child shares or “you are a good helper in the kitchen” send a strong message of ownership and increases displays of future generous behavior. Research suggests that by the age of ten, praising a child’s character or praising a precise action have equal effect.

Additionally the experience of shame or guilt impact the growth of pro-social behaviors like caring and generosity. Multiple studies conclude that when parents express excessive anger at children, withdraw love or exercise frequent threats of punishment, child learn to internalize shame. These children often withdraw socially and curate few prosocial behaviors. Conversely, children who experience guilt rather than shame about poor choices often become more generous as they mature.

While genetics does play a role in how we manifest generosity, kindness, compassion and mercy, the nurture aspect of the nature/nurture dichotomy plays an equally important role. And research indicates that parents have a strong influence from infancy to adulthood. Modeling generosity, helping children associate feelings to actions, personalizing accomplishments and avoiding shaming children all contribute to pro-social behaviors and produce individuals who cheerfully offer generous responses as adults. ###

Daniel Trussell, Ph.D., MBA, LPC, NCC, CPCS is author of The How Families Flourish Workbook and How Families Flourish. He is a certified Professional Counselor supervisor and conducts training for both professionals and families in incorporating the findings from positive psychology into daily life. He can be reached at [website]


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