Nurturing a Spirit of Caring and Generosity in Children

How can we nurture a child’s feelings of empathy and concern for others?

At this holiday season, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how we can help nurture in our children a spirit of generosity and concern for others. I cannot write this post, however, without first expressing my deepest condolences to the families of Newtown, Connecticut, for their unimaginable and unbearable loss.

Much of the year, parents are understandably concerned with their children’s achievement. We focus our daily attention on helping children develop the skills they will need to succeed in a competitive world.

Most parents, however, want more for their children than individual achievement. We also want them to be “good kids” – children who act with kindness and generosity toward their families, their friends, and their communities. These are universal values, shared by parents who are secular and religious, liberal and conservative.

How can we best accomplish these goals? How can we nurture a child’s feelings of empathy and concern for others, of appreciation and gratitude, and a desire for giving, not just getting.

Caring and Responsibility

Several years ago, psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Mussen presented a comprehensive review of research on the development of pro-social behavior (caring, sharing, and helping) in children. They concluded that pro-social behavior begins with a child’s empathy (her awareness of the feelings of others) and is then strengthened when children observe the caring behavior of admired adults and older children.

For young boys, a warm relationship with their father may be especially important. In one study, preschool boys who were generous toward other children portrayed their fathers as “nurturant and warm, as well as generous, sympathetic, and compassionate, whereas boys low in generosity seldom perceived their fathers in these ways.” (1)

Eisenberg and Mussen also found that, across cultures, children who are given family responsibilities, including household chores and teaching younger children, show more helpful and supportive behavior toward their families and their peers.

In a more recent series of studies, psychologist Ross Thompson and his colleagues found that children’s moral understanding and pro-social behavior were also strengthened by a mother’s use of emotion language in conversation with her child. Mothers of children who were high in conscience used what Thompson labelled an “elaborative” conversational style and made frequent references to other people’s feelings. (2)

Ideals and Idealism

In thinking about children’s moral development, we also need to remember the intangibles. Our children look up to us. They look up to us even when they are angry and defiant, or when they are defensive or withdrawn, and even when, as adolescents (or before), they challenge our ideas and rebel against our rules.

Because they look up to us, they want to be, and to become, like us. We can observe this, every day, in the admiring statements of young children, when first grade boys and girls tell their teacher, “I want to be fireman, like my daddy” or “I want to be a doctor and help people, like my mom.” Recall the looks on the faces of Scout and Jem when Atticus talks with them, or when he delivers his summation to the jury in To Kill a Mockingbird.

A child’s admiration of her parents is an important moral influence throughout childhood – a source of conscience, ideals, and long-term goals. When a child looks up to us – and in return, feels our genuine interest, warmth, and pride – we have strengthened an important pathway of healthy development, a pathway that leads toward commitment to ideals and a sense of purpose in life.

We also support our children’s idealism when we talk with them about people we admire, people who have inspired us and who we hope will inspire them. We need to let them know that there is so much good work to be done in the world, work that they will be able to do and can do, even now. And we should help them appreciate what others do for us. We should talk with them about heroes who may not be famous, heroes of everyday life: the people who build our cities, protect our safety, and save our lives.

Doing for Others

A growing body of scientific research now supports an important conclusion: Doing good for others is also good for us. Most of this research has been conducted with late adolescents and adults. My personal experience suggests that doing for others is also good for children.

In a recent review, psychologist Jane Piliavin concluded that community service (helping others as part of an institutional framework) leads to improved self-esteem, less frequent depression, better immune system functioning, even a longer life.

Piliavin found significant benefits when older elementary school students read to kindergartners or first graders. Good effects, including lower dropout rates, were also reported when middle school students were randomly assigned to tutor younger children, as little as 1 hour a week. An evaluation of student volunteering that involved 237 different locations and almost 4,000 students concluded that volunteering “led to increased intrinsic work values, the perceived importance of a career, and the importance of community involvement.” (3)

I therefore now recommend that parents find some way, especially as a family, to make doing for others a regular, not just occasional, part of their children’s lives. Children learn from this work that they have something to offer and they experience the appreciation of others. They learn how good it feels, to themselves and to others, to do good work.

(1) Eiesenberg, N., and Mussen, P. (1989). The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

(2) Thompson, R. A., Labile, D. J., and Ontai, L. L. (2003). Early Understandings of Emotion, Morality, and Self: Developing a Working Model. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 31, 137 – 171.

(3) Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. In C. L. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Eds.) Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, DC: APA Press, pp. 227 – 247.

(Originally published on

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