There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up,” wrote American physician John Holmes about a century ago. Even further back, Puritan English writer John Bunyan said, “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
Marjorie is a widow who suffers from allergies and mobility problems, and she doesn’t have family living nearby. Thankfully, a kind teenager volunteers to do her yard work. One evening, Marjorie asked if he’d mind doing some extra work around the house. She tried to tip him afterward, but he refused. “You’re going to spoil me,” Marjorie said. Kyle answered, “Somebody needs to.”
Wouldn’t you be so proud to be Kyle’s father?
Jeffrey Dew and W Bradford Wilcox, researchers with the University of Virginia’s National Marriage project, showed that generosity is the most consistent predictor of happy and long marriages. They defined generosity as small acts of kindness, regular displays of affection and respect, and a willingness to forgive one’s spouse their faults and failings.
Another study by the same researchers found that couples who reported a high amount of generosity in their relationship were five times more likely to say their marriage was “very happy”, compared with those who reported a low amount of generosity. All couples in the report had children.
You’re valuable, you’re important is the underlying message you send when you are generous. How then do we become more generous? The answer could be humility. Julie Exline and Peter Hill wrote in the Journal of Positive Psychology that humility is a consistent and robust predictor of generosity. What then is humility? The dictionary states that humility is the quality of having a modest view of one’s importance. Fathers, this attitude will allow you to serve your spouse and families much better.
Teach your children generosity
One of the hardest lessons to teach children is to share. It must be role-modelled—if you do, they will. There are many parenting websites that stress generosity as it is shown to increase the chances of a person being happy. Isn’t that what all parents want for their children? Happiness!
Indiana University economists looking at how charitable giving works in families found evidence that parents’ generosity and children’s generosity are strongly related. If you are generous then your children are likely to be too.
We probably already know it instinctively, but, in case we needed proof, psychological studies have shown that giving leads to happiness in young children. It makes young children even happier than receiving treats themselves! In addition, children can distinguish between costly and non-costly giving. They derive more happiness when the giving involves some personal sacrifice.
If you don’t teach generosity
All parents wish their children happiness. It’s pretty much what kids want for themselves too! I suggest that happiness can be taught. It can be easily shown that generosity leads to happiness, yet selfishness (which, ironically, is often motivated by happiness-seeking) leads to loneliness, disconnection and unhappiness.
Happiness can also depend on setting the right goals or aspirations. Kasser and Ryan’s 2016 research shows that a focus on extrinsic aspirations (wealth, fame and public image) can lead to depression, loneliness and even physical illnesses. We want none of those outcomes for our children. What we want is intrinsic aspirations—connected relationships, personal growth and community contributions.
Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo studied 229 middle-aged participants for more than 10 years, looking at their loneliness and self-centredness over time. His conclusion? “If you get more self-centred, you run the risk of staying locked into feeling lonely.”
Ethan Couch was just 16 when he got behind the wheel of his father’s F-150 truck, drunk. He smashed into a stationary SUV, killing the driver, Breanna Mitchell, as well as Holly and Shelby Boyles, and Brian Jennings, who were all trying to help Mitchell get her car going. At his trial in a Texas juvenile court in 2013, a psychologist testified in Ethan Couch’s defence that he was a victim of “affluenza”—he was unable to tell right from wrong as a result of being spoiled by his family’s wealth. Tonya Couch and her son drew international condemnation when they fled the United States and headed to Mexico, where Ethan continued his hedonistic lifestyle. It seems Ethan had become a very self-centred and entitled person, enabled by his mother’s and father’s lack of guidance.
Words of caution
Love yourself first, then love others. The Bible says, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Do not allow others to take advantage over you. Yes, humility predicts generosity, but this doesn’t mean you should allow either yourself or your child to become a doormat. There are too many narcissists out there who would love to trample on your generosity. One of the greatest agonies you will ever face is to see a family member being trampled on. Make sure that you are in a safe place when you give.
Children hate it when their parent is being crushed. If your life partner is mistreating you and you allow it to continue, you run the risk of normalising and reinforcing selfishness in your children. This can lead to their being unhappy when they are older. It’s not fair that the person suffering the abuse often has to take responsibility for making the hard choices and changes that need to be made, but it’s the reality.
Start early. Legendary Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s studies on children’s growth stages suggest that two-to-seven year-olds are naturally very stubborn and greedy. I suggest you begin teaching children as young as two years old to be generous.
How to teach generosity
Many parenting websites give sound and reasoned instruction on how to teach children generosity. Role-model generosity, they all state. Also be generous with their mum. Show and state that you are sharing with her. Father, use the word share a lot. The more they hear and use the word share the sooner they’ll learn what it means. So, during mealtime, ask, “Want some of my ice-cream? Let me share it with you.” Also, show that you disapprove of selfishness. Rather than reprimands, you can say, “In our family, we share. Please let your brother have some too.” Affirmation is key to reinforcing this good behaviour. Whenever your child shares, tell them, “Good job, I’m proud you shared your ice-cream with your brother.”
Also analyse your child’s greedy behaviours. If sharing remains a major obstacle for your child, examine other life issues. Has your family just moved? Have they just started preschool, or has a favourite pet recently died? Sometimes a child will react to tough transitions by clinging more tightly to a beloved possession.
Wayne Dosick, a rabbi and the author of Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children, suggests that you ask your children questions. When your child says, “I want chocolate milk!” in the supermarket, you can reply, “Okay, that’s what you would like. Now, what do you think Mummy would like us to bring home for her?” In this way, you are gently showing your child consideration for others.
Another way of teaching the concept of sharing is regularly decluttering the toybox. Look at all the toys your child no longer plays with and ask them to set those toys aside for the less fortunate. Your toddler may have an easier time learning to share if they know that a few favourite items are just for them alone. Again, reiterate the word share.
Finally, you can let your toddler learn from their own circle of friends. They will teach them—believe me. Try not to get involved in every battle over toys; kids eventually learn how to compromise when they realise that selfish behaviour drives playmates away.
Shared generosity between father and child beautifully shows one another that they are important and valuable. Do not be authoritarian when teaching this value. Generosity can never be a command; it has to be an intrinsic belief. Fathers, show kindness towards your partner and children. Considering yourself modestly will allow your children to confidently question the validity of ideas, yours included. This allows them to grow to be thinking and aware adults. In this atmosphere, children can be taught the value of generosity. Research is showing that children will find happiness in this act and will probably be happier adults.
No-one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.—Charles Dickens.
Patrick O’Neill has qualifications in psychology and management and is a father to six biological children, two stepchildren and more than 30 foster children. He lives on NSW’s Central Coast.