The Best Gift of All: Teaching Children the Spirit of GivingNov 30, 2022 ● By Madiha Saeed
Teaching children the value of generosity and kindness is not just good for the world, it is good for our kids, too. Studies have shown that acts of altruism can boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, increase self-esteem, reduce depression and lower stress levels. Selfless contributions also can foster a sense of belonging, whether they are donating material things, sharing their time or freely conveying love and kindness. A magnanimous child is repaid with benefits that nourish the body and soul.
Empathy and Mirror Neurons
To transform children into givers, they need to learn how to share and comprehend other people’s feelings. Known as cognitive empathy, it involves understanding another person’s emotions on an intellectual level, taking into consideration their situation and anticipating how they might react.
Since the 1990s, scientists have been researching mirror neurons which respond to actions that we observe in the same way as when we actually perform those actions ourselves. These neurons play a considerable role in the development of speech, language, learning, emotional intelligence, empathy and understanding, so children need to see and receive acts of giving and love to become givers themselves.
With mental health conditions in children on the rise, charitable behavior can improve their mental well-being and help them secrete “feel-good” chemicals in the brain like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. “I think helping our kids experience the happiness that comes from giving to others is probably one of the most valuable ways we can nurture generosity in them,” says Lara Aknin, an assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, in Canada. “It sets off this positive cycle. Giving makes people happy and happiness promotes giving.”
Functional MRIs of people that donate to charities have shown that the act of giving stimulates reward centers of the brain where endorphins are released. These hormones lower cortisol, improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve digestion, clear out toxins, help the immune system fight infections and renew energy to repair cells and fight cancer. Other benefits include lower inflammation overall, improved sleep, decreased feelings of restlessness and reductions in chronic pain.
Giving and Social Support
In a 2020 study reported in JAMA Network, researchers found that young adults ages 19 to 20 that perceived higher levels of social support—the feeling that there is someone they can depend on for help should they need it—were less likely to report depressive and anxiety symptoms or suicidal ideation one year later. The study also found that even in cases where people previously experienced mental health problems, social support was beneficial for mental health later on.
Love and secure attachments, such as those experienced through acts of giving, strengthen the body; help regulate emotions, attention and behavior; mitigate the effects of stress; and promote lifelong, healthy development.
Volunteering makes an immeasurable difference in the lives of others and creates a sense of purpose in the person doing it. Science has shown that engaging in volunteer work can decrease depression, reduce stress, increase longevity and help the person stay mentally and physically active. Volunteers get to meet others, develop new relationships and strengthen existing relationships with those that have similar goals and interests. There are many opportunities for children and parents to volunteer through school, religious and nonprofit organizations.
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Random Acts of Kindness and Generosity
Random acts of kindness and generosity include smiling, holding the door open for someone and reaching out to loved ones. Include a child in these activities and encourage them to do the same. “When you see your children being generous, point it out and praise them,” recommends The Center for Parenting Education. “Help them put into words the positive feelings they may have as they help others.”
The most important ingredient to develop a child with a healthy brain and body is love. Children need positive experiences for pathways in their brain and body to work. Developing empathy for themselves and others increases emotional strength and self-regulation. Improve the life of a child—physically, emotionally and spiritually—by teaching them the simple of act of giving.
Madiha Saeed, M.D., ABIHM, is the bestselling author of The Holistic RX, an international speaker, founder of HolisticMom MD and director of education for KnoWEwell.com.