Tis the season of giving: Around this time of year, many of us are encouraged to think about what we’re thankful for, and to give to others as a result of that thanksgiving. Being grateful is something that comes easy for some of us, and not so easy for others. What’s absolutely certain, however, is that giving to others really, really doesn’t come easy for young children. In fact, children under the age of 5 can be notoriously selfish, neglecting to share toys, and coveting all of the holiday sweets for themselves. How do we get them into the spirit of giving this holiday season?
Giving is easy if it doesn’t affect you in any way. But most of the time, giving to others costs you something—money or time or something you already own—which makes giving much harder, especially for children. First of all, giving to others means you have to control any feeling or urge you might have to keep everything for yourself; that isn’t easy for anyone, especially children. Further, most of us give to others because we understand that it will benefit them, or make them happy in some way. This is something children have trouble with as well. In fact, the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling—what psychologists call theory of mind—is something that develops slowly, and isn’t fully intact until age 5 or 6.
Indeed, children in the preschool years often behave selfishly, keeping resources for themselves whenever they have the chance (e.g., Fehr, Bernhard, & Rockenbach, 2008; Callaghan & Corbit, 2018). In fact, even though children of this age know that they should share with others, they often say that they won’t, despite knowing that it’s the right thing to do (Smith, Blake & Harris, 2013; Blake, McAuliffe, & Warneken, 2014). This doesn’t mean all children are jerks. In fact, they often do behave quite prosocially if it doesn’t mean giving up coveted toys or treats. Research has shown, for example, that 14- to 18-month-olds will go out of their way to help an adult who shows signs of trouble achieving a goal (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006, 2007), and toddlers of the same age even comfort their mothers if they appear to be upset (Roth-Hanania, Davidov, & Zahn-Waxler, 2011). However, children may need a little help in understanding why it’s important to give some of what they have to other people in need.
Substantial evidence suggests that both giving and being thankful for what you receive have long-term benefits for our overall happiness and well-being. Even a single act of giving can make us feel happy. In one study on this topic, adults were given an envelope with either $5 or $20 in it. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were told to spend it on someone else. They were then asked at the end of the study to report on how happy they felt. The amount of money they were given didn’t affect their happiness, but the adults who spent the money on someone else reported feeling happier at the end of the day than the adults who spent the money on themselves (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008). Follow-up research suggests that spending money on other people makes you particularly happy when you can see the difference that your generosity makes when you feel some sort of close connection with the person or cause that you’re giving to, and when you make the decision to give on your own (Lok & Dunn, 2020).
Despite the fact the kids have trouble giving or sharing their resources, there is evidence that giving makes them happier too. The same group of researchers did another study where they gave 2-year-olds a bowl of snacks—goldfish or teddy grahams (some of my kids’ favorites)—and were asked to share their snacks with a puppet. The children who shared demonstrated more signs of happiness than the children who didn’t, even though giving the puppet treats meant having fewer snacks for themselves (Aknin, Hamlin, & Dunn, 2012). This work suggests that giving to others can have benefits for our happiness and well-being whether we’re 2 years old or 80. In fact, a study of 136 countries demonstrates that there’s a relationship between charitable giving and happiness across the people in most countries (Aknin et al., 2013).
Being thankful when someone else gives to you also has similar benefits. People who are induced to feel grateful give more money to others in an economic game than those who weren’t grateful, regardless of whether they were giving to someone they knew or to someone they didn’t know (DeSteno et al., 2010). Further, adults induced to feel gratitude put more effort into helping others than those that didn’t, again, regardless of whether it’s to help someone they know or a total stranger (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006). Gratitude has also been shown to help us override some of our more selfish temptations and build self-control, helping us to be cooperative in future social interactions. Indeed, researchers have reported that inducing gratitude results in adults waiting longer to obtain a reward, and likewise, increased gratitude is related to all sorts of positive health behaviors that require self-control, such as eating well and exercising more, and lower rates of drug and alcohol use (DeSteno, 2018).
Altogether, giving to others and being thankful to those who give to us has benefits that far outweigh the resources you might be losing. And although children might have trouble sharing with others, it can benefit them too. Most importantly, there are things you can do to encourage them to get in the giving mood this season. For example, talking to children about their emotions and the emotions of others has been shown to elicit more prosocial behaviors, like sharing and helping (Brownell, Svetlova, Anderson, Nichols, & Drummmond, 2013; Garner, Dunsmore, & Southam-Gerrow, 2008). Further, modeling positive behaviors yourself can also teach children how to be more prosocial, as can talking about the positive benefits of being honest or kind to others (e.g., Lee et al., 2014). So one of the best ways to help our children get in the giving spirit this season is to model giving behaviors in ourselves, and then perhaps we can all be a little thankful for the extra happiness we get in return.
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