Growing up, even though I didn't believe in Santa Claus, I still, um, believed in getting gifts. And I had my fair share of Christmas wish lists for mom and dad. A few items that topped one year's list included a Play-Doh machine that molded glittery butterflies, an Easy Bake Oven, and a sparkly-velvety Christmas Barbie. I actually never received any of these items, and I am grateful that my parents never gave them to me.
Instead of teaching me to expect gifts every year just because it was the expected for Christmas, my parents taught me to remember those who had helped us in some way throughout the year, and to give to them instead. In our family, this meant remembering the next-door neighbor who helped shovel our snow in winter, the family friend who dropped me off after school, and even the postman -- with either fresh fruits, a homemade meal, or chocolates. My parents didn't give generously in the lavish and expensive sense; instead, they made sure to give generously with affection and heart.
But what makes someone generous? And can generosity be developed?
The answers may lie in a recent study published online in Current Biology. Developmental neuroscientists at the University of Chicago focused on a small sample size of 57 children, ages 3 to 5, to see how the idea of generosity (or the concept of moral behavior) formed at a young age. Each child watched short animations of cartoon characters either helping or hurting one another. Afterwards, the children were presented with two boxes and 10 stickers. They had the option of placing stickers in one box for themselves to keep, or placing the stickers in the other box to share with an unknown child. In most cases, regardless of age or gender, children placed at least 2 stickers in the box for the unknown child.
Throughout the experiment, the scientists tracked and recorded the children's brain waves and eye movement. They then compared the children's brain waves during the watching process and the giving process. Researchers noticed that specific neural markers in the brain during both times were engaged in the same way, which indicated that even at a young age, kids had the ability to connect moral situations (helping someone) with the desire to share (being generous).
This is an encouraging study, which is on track to showing that generosity can be identified in kids who are still at an age when selfishness reigns. And if generosity can be identified, then it has the potential to be nurtured and developed as kids get older. In essence, being generous means being sensitive to the needs of others and sacrificing some time (or maybe money) to helping them.
And most parents want to raise kids who give and who understand the importance of volunteering and donating to charity. One way parents can teach the idea of giving and generosity might be as simple as asking kids what gifts they will give others for Christmas, versus what gifts they want to receive. Or it may mean emphasizing gifts that come from the heart and not from the wallet, like spending more time together, as this IKEA Spain commercial reveals. It's always the simple, smallest things that can make the biggest impact.
Sherry Huang is a Features Editor for Parents.com who covers baby-related content. She loves collecting children's picture books and has an undeniable love for cookies of all kinds. Her spirit animal would be Beyoncé Pad Thai. Follow her on Twitter @sherendipitea
Photo: Hands holding a heart via Shutterstock