Birth to 2

Infants are entirely focused on meeting their own needs and incapable of offering up something they value. This begins to change by about 8 months as they interact more consciously with others. A baby learns to enjoy handing objects to her mother because she loves her mother's pleased reaction.

At the negative toddler stage, however, children feel that sharing their possessions diminishes their sense of self, while holding back furnishes a sense of control. It's easier for toddlers to give up things that aren't personally valuable to them.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Share a cookie with your child and point out, "Daddy shared with you."
  • Mention frequently that sharing makes playmates happy.
  • Start a charity collection jar for the whole family, and give your toddler a coin to deposit regularly.
  • What's the goal?

    To create in children the good feelings associated with giving and to inculcate early on the habit of donating to charity.

    3 to 4

    At preschool or in play groups, three- and four-year-olds begin to learn the rules for treating others kindly. But they have a hard time controlling their impulses, and may not follow these rules consistently. Acting generously at this age is often connected with adult approval. A preschooler who offers his friend some candy, for example, may eagerly await a pat on the back from his teacher or parent.

    Preschoolers often practice generosity in pretend play, trading costumes or bestowing gifts as part of a drama they're acting out.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Praise your child when he shares a toy or gives a gift to a friend.
  • Keep extra toys handy-kids are more generous when there's enough to go around.
  • When playmates come over, let your child be the one to pass out snacks.
  • What's the Goal?

    To reinforce the importance of sharing and give your child the experience of being generous.

    5 to 7

    Once in elementary school, children become focused more on fairness and equality than on generosity. They may be hard-pressed to understand why someone would give up something without receiving something concrete in return. Birthday parties--a major part of school-age kids' social lives--offer them the opportunity to learn to be gracious givers (in anticipation of their own birthday haul).

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Bring your child along or get her suggestions when you select a birthday gift for a friend.
  • Ask your child to come up with something nice to do for a sibling and help her carry out the idea.
  • Set up a "bear hug" project. With a group of kids and parents, collect new or slightly used teddy bears to be distributed to children in emergency rooms or police stations. (From "Kids Who Care," by Deborah Spaide)
  • What's the Goal?

    To help kids identify with another's happiness and to teach them that they can turn their own ideas into generous behavior.

    8 to 10

    As children enter the later elementary-school grades, some have developed an "inner voice" that propels them to be generous without any prompting by adults. They may be generous with their time, offering to teach a friend how to play chess, or generous with their possessions, letting a friend borrow an electronic game overnight. Others may need gentle reminders to think of others.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Have a "clean-out" day, in which you ask your child to pick out the toys, books, and clothes he no longer needs. Then together select a charity or friends to give them to.
  • Don't forget to say "thank you" to kids for thoughtful things they do, no matter how small.
  • What's the Goal?

    To get your child to focus on the satisfaction of making someone happy rather than concrete "payback."

    11 to 13

    Although preteens have absorbed the concept that it's important to treat others well, they are also influenced by their peers. Kids this age desperately want to be popular and fit in. Consequently, they may ignore their generous impulses--for example, to let an unpopular kid borrow their science notes-for fear their friends will make fun of them.

    Preteens may also try to "buy" the friendship of kids they like, while denying their siblings access to their belongings.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Ask questions that appeal to empathy rather than demanding that preteens' be generous: for example, "Can you see how it would make your little sister if you'd play one game with her?" or "How would you feel if you were the only girl not invited to the party?"
  • What's the Goal?

    To have a child search his or her own conscience for reasons to act generously.

    14 to 18

    Practically all teenagers will be extremely generous to someone. They're often idealistic and able to put another's needs ahead of their own. Some belong to religious or school groups that organize clothing or food drives for local charities; others are generous mostly with their closest friends.

    As they move toward adulthood, however, teenagers typically begin to develop a balanced approach to giving. They realize that they have to apportion their resources and are more discerning about how much they can realistically give.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage teens to participate in service projects. Donate goods or services when they ask you to.
  • Make it easy for teens to continue in religious youth groups by scheduling family activities around their schedules.
  • What's the Goal?

    To let teens take charge of their own acts of generosity but to help them recognize when they've taken on too much.

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