If you’re a parent of a toddler, then there’s one monosyllabic phrase that undoubtedly punctuates your days: “Mine!” Children are good at many things that might give grown-ups green horns — such as touching their toes and falling asleep anywhere, to name just a few — but it seems that sharing is not one of those things. It’s a skill that must be consistently taught. Brain research helps to explain why this is, and how parents can more effectively inculcate their children in the art of generosity.
University of Chicago researchers Drs. Jean Decety and Jason Cowell published a study in Current Biology in which “generosity was used as a proxy for moral behavior.” The study’s authors recorded the electrical brain activity (using EEG and eye tracking) of a group of kids ranging in age from three to five years old, “while they viewed short animations depicting prosocial and anti-social behaviors of cartoon-like characters helping or hurting each other.”
Following this, the researchers gave the children 10 stickers to keep for themselves, and then they were presented with the opportunity to give some of their stickers to a child they had never met. On average, the kids gave away less than two of their stickers.
The researchers found that the content of the video they were shown prior to the activity influenced how generous they were with their stickers; however, “The most important predictor of the child’s future generosity … was their “reappraisal, or ability to re-evaluate the situations they had viewed later on.”
In other words, kids need time to digest and reflect on the moral implications of others’ behaviors before they feel comfortable sharing.
While the personal and societal benefits of generosity should seem obvious, it never hurts to index them. For starters, when you give back to others, your body releases oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates a reduction in anxiety levels and generally more positive feelings toward other people. Moreover, oxytocin makes us more likely to donate in the first place, according to research published in Nature that found that subjects who inhaled oxytocin gave away 80 percent more money than subjects who inhaled a placebo.
Another benefit of generosity is improved physical health. Research has found lower mortality rates, lower risk of blood-pressure problems, reductions in the symptoms of heart disease and chronic pain, and boosted immunoglobulin A levels (which enhances immune function) are all associated with the act of giving.
As such, it would seem as though giving of your time and money pays dividends, both to those on the receiving end as well as to the individual who gives freely. Considering the fact that giving is just another word for sharing, this research examining generosity in children takes on new significance.
The cognitive processes of our children are often more complex than we realize. For example, Decety and Cowell’s research found that deciding to share comes after being able to look the big picture and understanding the morality of one’s actions. When we appreciate the complex cognitive processes of our children — we are better equipped to raise giving children. And when those giving children evolve into benevolent adults, the world will reap rewards.
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