“My kids are so selfish.” “I think my son is a kind of an a**hole. Is that OK to admit?!” “Sharing our toys is really hard right now.”
I can’t tell you how many times parents have said things like this to me. They see selfish behaviors in their kids and have no clue how to fight it. How do we raise kids to be less selfISH and more selfLESS?
As I’ve worked with kids and students for years, the last 14 years at a church with over 5,000 kids and students each weekend, I can tell you that parents are not alone in their concern about raising generous kids.
I’ll get to some answers in a bit, but first, let me tell you a story.
We adopted our youngest when she was 10 years old. One of the first gifts she received was a Madeline doll. I’d loved Madeline as a kid, and my mom thought her new granddaughter would love her own doll. Because our daughter lived in an orphanage for years, she didn’t have resources to give gifts and gift-giving in the orphanage was rare. Soon after coming home, she walked across the street and gave her Madeline doll to a young neighbor.
How did I react? I was mad. I was also afraid that her grandma would be hurt that her gift was given away. It was an expensive doll, so it didn’t seem right to give it away.
But years later, I’m wondering why I didn’t celebrate her generosity. Prior to that, we had celebrated when our kids had given gently used toys to charity, so why didn’t I celebrate this? Were certain things just “too good” to give away?
The answer, of course, is no. God gives us the very best. We should do the same.
As parents, we want our kids to be generous. A verse in the Bible has a great phrase about becoming cheerful givers:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7
But sharing is difficult, and in the first few years of life, kids simply don’t have the capacity to grasp the concept. But as they mature, and consider the world around them while also becoming more empathetic, generosity is a character trait that can be taught—and even more importantly, modeled.
Kids learn from watching their parents. So, the first step in training our kids to be generous is to model generosity. (The Merriam Webster definition is freely giving or sharing money and other valuable things; providing more than the amount that is needed or normal: abundant or ample.) Here are a few questions to get you thinking:
- As a child, what was modeled to me? Did I see generosity in my parents? What thoughts and beliefs that I picked up as a kid have affected how I approach generosity as an adult?
- What have my kids seen me do that is generous? Where have I given my time or resources to others? You may realize that while you are generous, you may be doing it out of eyesight of your kids.
- Where have I modeled selfishness?
Once we understand where we are, we can plan our journey to encourage generosity in our kids. Maybe you’ve realized your actions are quite generous but your kids don’t see it. Or maybe there are areas where you can grow in your generosity. Maybe there are thoughts and actions around generosity that were modeled to you as a kid that you do not want to be part of your family’s story.
Here are some steps to help train our kids in generosity (which has the extra bonus of leading them out of selfishness):
- Model it: When our kids were young, I was blessed with neighbors also raising little ones. We were a great support system and would often drop notes, chocolate, or even a bottle of wine on mom’s porches as a reminder that we were not alone. That was a generous act, but my kids never saw me do it. I usually did it after they were in bed. How fun it would have been, and great training, to have them in on these special deliveries? Don’t hide those generous acts from your kids.
- Talk it: Remind kids of God’s generosity with us. All that we have comes from God. Thank Him regularly for the ways he has blessed your family. Because of the way He has blessed us, we naturally have a desire to bless others. Also, point out the generosity of others. When others are generous with your family—tell your kids. As we are generous with others, explain to our kids what we are doing and why. This isn’t bragging. It is how we train our kids. At my dad’s funeral, I learned of so many generous acts that he did in his life, and I had no clue. I would have loved to have talked about those with him.
- Do it: As a family, look for ways to be generous together. As the holidays approach, there are many ways to support families in need or donate to coat and food drives. Clean out our closets, collecting toys and clothes to donate. Give of your time to neighbors who need yard work. Bake treats for city employees. And remember, as we do these acts, our kids are watching. Years ago at church, the kids collected peanut butter to send to our friends in South Africa. One 5th grader was happy to bring in several jars of peanut butter. As he dropped his generic peanut butter in the boxes, he turned to me and said rather apologetically, “We bought Jif Peanut butter for our family.” I thanked him for his donation and didn’t follow up on the Jif comment. I did wonder what he was thinking, though. Was he learning that we keep the best to ourselves and give the cheaper or less desirable items to others?
- Celebrate it: When we see our kids being generous, celebrate it. I believe the old saying “celebrate what you want to replicate.” Typically the behavior we celebrate, we’ll see again. Celebrate the generosity of others too.
A few years after giving her brand new Madeline doll away, our daughter decided she wanted to bring her friends from the orphanage here for the summer. Pretty generous, huh? I talked her out of it, and we sent toothpaste, toothbrushes, and socks to the orphanage instead. But that did not satisfy our daughter. She continued to plead with us to give her friends a summer they would never forget. She was sure that if people met her friends, they’d adopt them. She had a grand plan.
Finally, I gave in, gathered some friends, and we worked to make her dream a reality. It sounded like a crazy plan, and most people agreed that is was a crazy idea. It seemed undoable—a bunch of American moms bringing 15 Ukrainian orphans to the USA. But it happened. The kids had an amazing summer, and our family gained another daughter. And many of those kids, plus others from their orphanage, were adopted into families.
Raising generous kids may introduce risks and adventure into your life. It may be uncomfortable. But I believe that our families will be blessed in ways we can not even imagine.
This is part of a 6-week-series for parents on raising generous kids. For more resources watch this video about Generosity.