As the holidays approach with gusto every year, I struggle with how to teach my children to climb down from Santa’s lap and think about others for a change. Don’t get me wrong; I think the holidays are wonderful. It’s magical to see the glint in my 4-year-old’s eyes as we light up the Christmas tree. My 7-year-old giggles with excitement as he methodically writes his wish list to Santa each year.
So I did a little research on what the developmental and behavioral psychologists had to say on how to teach a child altruism and compassion. It turns out that our role as parents is vital in nurturing these important traits from the moment a child is born. Bowlby wrote in 1969 that humans are evolutionarily equipped with the ability to create attachment bonds with caretakers who offer protection, guidance, and relief from distress. If an infant learns that he can depend on his caregivers to provide for his needs, he will learn to provide for the needs of others. As the attached video shows, humans are born with an innate sense of altruism and benevolence and naturally enjoy helping others. Often the challenge is protecting our children from the selfish influences of a retail economy and preserving the altruistic tendencies bred in their DNA.
As your child reaches the toddler years, you can hone their empathetic and altruistic tendencies in the way you respond to conflict. Martin Hoffman described the “inductive discipline technique” in 1975. In a disagreement, if a parent calls attention to the other child’s distress and encourages her child to imagine himself in his playmate’s place, he will learn compassion and empathy. The “authoritarian parenting” technique, where a child is punished harshly for transgressions, will not promote development of these crucial life skills.
Finally, if you are a compassionate parent, your children will learn by your example. It isn’t always enough, however, to do a good deed. You should tell your children the importance of the coats you donate or the food you serve to others. Lickona wrote in 1983, “our children need to see us lead good lives, but they also need to know why we do it. We need to practice what we preach, but we also need to preach what we practice.”
So during this holiday season, take time to ring the bells for the Salvation Army or shop for gifts for underprivileged kids with your little ones in tow. Who knows? Maybe their wish list will be a little bit shorter as they learn to give to others.
Kristin Seaborg is a Wisconsin pediatrician who writes about her experiences and perspective as a pediatrician and a parent of three children on her blog, Common Sense Motherhood. To find out more about Dr. Seaborg, you can visit her at her website, www.kristinseaborg.com.