Our 5 year-old keeps forgetting to draw arms on his people at school. The lack of arms has evolved since school started in September and even came up in his parent-teacher conference recently. I found it odd– he always seems to remember that humans have arms when he draws at home. We didn’t mention it to him. And when his brother got an easel for his birthday recently, F painted this picture. Something jumped out at me. I loved it. Not just that hands are present on this figure but the perspective it imparts. Something about this little person looks so generous and so ready to give.

It’s important to help our children understand the need to give back, provide, share, and act generously. ‘Tis the season, too. When I’ve thought of it before, I’d attributed our role (as parents) as role models, that is I thought if we act generously in front of children they will learn how to give more freely.

Recently a beautiful study in PLOS ONE conducted at Yale illuminated the complexity and the maturity of our young children when it comes to giving. It made me realize we may have to be more deliberate and outspoken about how and why we give. Social conditions matter when it comes to generosity and this isn’t just true of adults. “Human adults are unique in that they perform what appears to be an inordinate amount of generous behavior,” the study begins. Voluntary sharing really does begin as early as 2 years of age even when “resources are easily monopolizable.” Why do children give so early and demonstrate these prosocial acts?

Researchers sought to understand how what image a child presents to others influences how much and why they give generously. Basically, they wanted to know if young children where motivated by what others thought about them when it came to their generosity. The stated that although “evidence strongly suggests that children’s behavior is generally influenced by a desire to make a good impression in the eyes of others, no research to date has systematically addressed the role that audience and transparency cues play in mediating children’s prosocial tendencies.”

Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware Of Their Actions

  • Researchers set up an experiment where 5 year-olds were tested with their peers under differing circumstances of transparency and differing audiences (if others could see into the container). They set up a sticker machine that in some settings was transparent (both the child giving and the child receiving could see how many stickers were up for grabs) and other settings where only the giver of stickers knew how many stickers they could give. They then had children give out stickers in both settings (transparent and opaque), being able to see the recipient or not. For more details about the methods, click on the study and you can see images of the sticker machine and further details of how children were asked to share.
  • The results were striking: children were consistently generous only when the recipient  and audience of the stickers was fully aware of the donation options (4 stickers over 1 sticker for example).  Children were notably ungenerous when the recipient of stickers couldn’t see the options whatsoever. Both having an audience present (seeing the recipient) and having the number of stickers be transparent affected children’s decisions to give. The researchers wrote, “One striking aspect of our results is that children were considerably ungenerous in our task. Indeed, children only showed consistently prosocial behavior in our study in the condition when they could see the recipient and their allocations were fully visible; in all other conditions, children were statistically ungenerous, giving the recipient the smaller amount of stickers.”
  • Researchers made the conclusions that children are differentially generous depending on what the recipient knows about how much you are able to give and if people are present to observe giving. Basically, children will be generous when those who are in need know how much they have to give. It seems when children can obscure  their “wealth,” they don’t give as much away. When their friends are able to see their choices, children will give peers far more.

The take home point for me from the study is that at a very early age, children are learning how to position themselves socially. Well before they have a handle on the sociology of their networks and what social reputation really means (normally around age 8), they think strategically about giving as a function of how they can gain a reputation with a peer as a generous citizen or prosocial agent when the recipient observes them.

How To Foster Generosity At An Early Age?

  1. Recognize that children are influenced by how their generosity is observed and understood.
  2. Children may often think about giving under the lenses of competition. In the discussion of this paper, researchers wondered if children unintentionally thought the experiment was a competition (i.e. whoever ended with the most stickers wins). It is known that when competitive constructs are present, children are less generous. So are adults. Therefore, we can help young children understand when competition is present and when it isn’t. If a soccer game really isn’t a tally of total goals, tell children implicitely. Allow them to learn how to pass the ball and share as teammates early and often. When they are set to compete, let that be clear. But allow situations of play and giving not to be about winning, too.
  3. Children modify their behavior in response to having an audience. I suggest we help our children give to others in full view (donations to school can drive, soup kitchen, delivering meals to families who need support) and in private or anonymously, too (drop-off treats or surprises for those in your life without signing your name).
  4. Remind children thank you notes are lovely but unnecessary to receive. As an adult I’ve often heard people complain about not receiving a thank-you note. It’s as if the reason to give a gift was to be acknowledged rather than provide something wonderful for another person. When we give gifts or lend help to others, try to help children remember why—to provide something for another. It really doesn’t have to be recognized. When a thank you card doesn’t come, it doesn’t make a gift any less valuable or meaningful for those who were lucky enough to receive.