Dr. Pratiksha Rigley
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Teaching Little Hands to Make a Big Difference

In today’s world, it is important take purposeful steps to help children grow up to be compassionate and generous human beings. Children who learn the value of giving back at a young age are better able to develop a sense of empathy and citizenship. In addition,  research shows that young children who have high prosocial skills – or behaviors meant to benefit another – are also among the most cognitively ready for school.

While teaching young children the joy of giving back can seem overwhelming for parents, helping to instill these attributes in your little ones may be simpler than you think. A study conducted by two Harvard anthropologists, John and Beatrice Whiting, observed the altruistic practices of children of six different cultures. Their findings indicate that, regardless of culture, gender or socioeconomic status, the most significant differentiating variable is that children assigned more household responsibilities are more helpful and giving.

Encouraging children to contribute to the well-being of the family at a young age – by taking care of the family’s pets, helping parents care for younger siblings and performing household chores – teaches them the importance of giving back, and, more importantly, the sense of fulfillment derived from helping others. Parents can use the following tips to help nurture selflessness and generosity in children at home:

1. Model kindness to your child and others. Let your child see you offering to help a neighbor or co-worker and express to him or her the happiness you feel when helping others.

2. Remind your child how helping benefits others. Include your child in simple activities by asking for help. For instance, you might say, “Who wants to be my special helper today and help carry laundry to the washer? We won’t have clean clothes without you!” Or, “The dog looks hungry. I bet he’d really appreciate it if you gave him his food and water.”

3. Acknowledge helpful behavior. Show your appreciation and explain why it was helpful to you. For example, rather than just saying “Thank you,” instead say, “Thank you for helping me carry the dishes to the kitchen without being asked. That saved me a lot of time.”

4. Encourage giving. If another child doesn’t have a toy to play with, suggest that your child offer up a toy so they can both have something fun to play with.

5. Avoid rewarding generosity. Avoid material rewards for helping and giving behaviors. Treats for good deeds may work in the short term, but over time children may become less generous when the rewards stop.

You may also consider taking your child with you to volunteer for a nonprofit organization. Choosing volunteer activities that are age-appropriate is important. Children as young as 3 years old enjoy participating in group activities and are able to follow directions. Think through the following questions to help select a volunteer opportunity that is right for your family: Does the organization have experience working with children and families? Will the organization staff welcome my child’s participation? Is there a specific job that my child can do successfully? Can the organization help my child understand how his or her efforts benefit others?

Compassion and generosity are important traits for every person to have. Helping young children learn the joy and fulfillment of lending a helping hand to others will empower them to make a difference in the world, both as children and adults.

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