SALT LAKE CITY — When Daniel and Amanda Olson decided to move from Seattle back to Bountiful, Utah, last August, their kids weren’t thrilled.
The Olsons had moved five times and promised Samuel, now 14, and Mary, 11, that they’d stay in Washington a while. But sometimes life intervenes, and the adults decided they should move to help Amanda’s aging parents.
They couched the move in a conversation about generosity and the importance of caring for others.
“We need to help my parents. We have worked to help (the kids) understand that has been our motivation, and they need to be generous to their grandparents, and of course my parents are generous to us, too. What we all do every day is a real exercise in generosity,” says Amanda Olson, who notes how life has changed for both families, including the fact they brought a dog and “our craziness” into her parents’ quiet routine.
Generosity is not just giving money to a cause or handing a buck to someone on the street. It can take the form of shoveling a neighbor’s walk or volunteering to teach someone to read. It is a transaction of the heart that can mean sharing one’s money, talent or time.
But how does one raise children who will have a heart for generosity? That’s a matter of nurturing what’s best in a child’s human nature, says psychologist Dale Atkins, who with her social worker niece Amanda Salzhauer wrote “The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children.”
“Kids are hardwired to be kind,” Atkins says. “Once you appreciate that, you can be less focused on teaching than on nourishing and encouraging and being a role model." She said it matters that parents talk "about what you are doing and why and the effect that kindnesses, good deeds — generosity — has on us as well as others.”
Generosity is vital for a good life, experts say. And parents interviewed for this story call it a major goal.
Atkins likens it to exercising a muscle: What you use grows. What you don’t shrinks. “There are so many ways to incorporate it into everyday life with the smallest action, the smallest word, the smallest acknowledgments,” she says of being generous. “Then you get the helper’s high, the release of endorphin and you feel better about yourself because you have an impact. ... It is the conversation and connection.”
Both the show and tell part, it turns out, are incredibly important.
When Felicia Harris was growing up, if someone knocked at the door with a small need like a cup of sugar or a couple of bucks, her mother gave if she could. But really, says Harris, it was her family that usually needed help. She and her siblings often were sent off with a note to ask neighbors for help.
“Maybe that’s why I give so much — because now I’m in a great position to give,” says Harris, creator of “The Makings of Me Book,” a “memoir” meant to be filled out and shared with one’s kids. Her son Khayan Jr., 12, has become generous by paying attention as his parents help those in need around them, particularly New York City’s burgeoning homeless population.
“Constantly, we are showing and explaining to our son what it means to help others and why we feel compelled to do so,” says Harris of a life that includes running food and coat drives, cooking and serving meals, making and distributing care packages and orchestrating a back-to-school haircut drive.
She said they lead by example and have many conversations with their son about why caring for others is necessary. The result is her son has taken the lessons to heart.
Talking and showing matters, she says, because “my son is living a comfortable life. He doesn’t know financial struggle so we show him and explain it to him. I don’t want him to grow up turning his nose up to the world. We’re not rich, but we’re not broke, either.” And should someone take advantage of her generosity, she won’t lose sleep. “What they choose to do with my money is on them, but I know what my agenda was when I handed it to them: To feed them and give a helping hand.”
“Children start learning from you the first time they open their eyes,” says health and wellness expert Caleb Backe of Maple Holistics in Riverdale, New York. “You need to be a good example. Your child can also be taught how to be empathetic.” Asking questions helps, he says. “‘How do you think your brother feels about you taking his toy?’ can go a long way.”
But parenting coach and owner of Be Kind Coaching MegAnne Ford adds a caution. Children have to choose whether to share. Forcing it backfires. Children need to know their possessions are theirs. She notes that parents can’t force characteristics like generosity. “They truly must be felt to be fully learned.”
She tells parents to be generous with their kids, without overindulging, and to talk about the good feeling it brings. “This helps model that sharing will inspire good feelings in others.”
“Having the conversation is really important because for some, generosity is not inherent,” notes Olson. “It is in my husband, but it’s not built into me. I watch and learn from his actions.”
And with the kids, they have “clear, important discussions. We talk them through why one behavior is generous and another is not.” Olson family generosity is not confined to the home they share with her parents, of course. Amanda Olson says they’ve helped others with food and money when they saw need. They’ve always looked in on and after neighbors and reached out to teachers with small gifts and classroom donations.
When they review their day, one of the questions Daniel and Amanda Olson ask is how the kids were involved with other people, what opportunities they had to be generous and when they could have been more generous, she says.
Tap into passion
Didi Foley, a Chicago-area mom, has always tried to instill kindness and generosity in her children. But what happened when her daughter Roxanne, 8, had her generosity ignited by a passion for animals has made ripples at her school and in her community.
The Foley family went to SeaWorld last year and Roxanne asked if she and her brother Duncan, 13, could see the manatees because she watches animal shows and knew the theme park rescues them. She pelted the caregiver there with a lot of questions as she watched the “sea cows.” Then she went home, mind racing, determined to help them.
She knew students in Florida bring lettuce for them. She lives too far away to do that, so she typed a letter to Jon Peterson at SeaWorld asking what she could do. His response launched the child on an effort to raise money and educate others about efforts to save the creatures. So far, she’s raised more than $200 in spare change for her “Humanity for the Manatees” effort, involving two elementary schools, family (her grandfather suggested the name), her orthodontist and others. Not long ago, SeaWorld’s Jon Peterson Skyped with Roxanne’s classmates and showed them the manatees they're helping to save.
“While supporting ‘Humanity for the Manatees’ in suburban Chicago seems like a long shot, I know this random act of kindness, passion and love shared with others is amazing and contagious,” Foley says of her daughter’s crusade.
Even 8-year-olds, passions lit, can make a splash.
Psychotherapist and life coach Ana Jovanovic of Parenting Pod offers tips for raising generous kids:
Show generous behavior at home. Many are generous away from home, but kids watch both places. Volunteer, donate money or start a fundraiser, she says, “but it’s just as important that you show empathy and understanding to your loved ones at home. And it’s just as important for you to be mindful of how other people in your family feel when you are making plans.”
Praise generous behavior when you see it. When someone else does something generous, be sure to praise it, she says. Skip attaching adjectives to someone’s personality and focus on the behavior, which anyone can emulate. So don’t say “she’s generous,” but note the generous thing she did. Anyone can “choose to behave in a generous way no matter what their personality and tendencies are,” Jovanovic notes.1 comment on this story
Help kids understand other viewpoints. “When teaching this skill, it’s important to start from experiences that are close to them,” she notes. “Remember when you got mad at me for not going to the movies? You got mad because you counted on me to take you and you really wanted to see the movie. However, your brother got sick and I couldn't let him stay home alone, so we didn’t go. I didn’t mean to let you down and I understand why you felt angry at that moment.” Jovanovic says generosity is a difficult skill because “we tend to get stuck in our own perspectives.”
Do generous things as a family. Pick a cause, task or individual to help.
Encourage kids to read or read with them. “Research shows that reading fiction can improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes, which is the basis of our ability to be generous to other people,” says Jovanovic.