Aside from competitive pie baking and the even more competitive pie eating, Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when many Americans practice generosity. Families volunteer at local soup kitchens or invite lonely neighbors to share in their feasts of cranberry sauce, turkey, and mashed potatoes. But if you really want your kids to learn the value of being big-hearted, such gestures shouldn’t be limited to the fourth Thursday in November, says child development expert Robyn Silverman.
Silverman, who holds a Ph.D. in child development from Tufts University, developed Powerful Words, a character education curriculum taught in nine countries, which devotes a month to teaching children about generosity. She argues that this trait is teachable to every age as long as parents keep in mind one key point: Generosity is an activity that brings as much pleasure to the giver as to the receiver.
GreatSchools asked Silverman to share her tips for instilling the joys of giving in preteens year-round.
GreatSchools: What is happening developmentally with middle-schoolers when it comes to generosity?
Robyn Silverman: Middle-schoolers are now starting to get into the preadolescent and adolescent stage where they are thinking more abstractly. They are able to think about other people in more empathetic ways. Kids can put themselves in [others’] shoes. That’s a great time to talk to those kids about how they would feel if they were in a situation where their house caught fire and they didn’t have anything left.
GreatSchools: What’s a good activity for nurturing empathy?
Silverman: Every year, as a part of Powerful Words, I take kids with me to a homeless shelter. We have a school-wide charity event, where people donate all kinds of stuff.
I have six to eight kids come with me, along with some of their parents, and drop the stuff off. Then we make arrangements with the shelter to have a walk-through.
They actually see what it looks like to be a part of the shelter. What kids there had and also what they didn’t have; they were sharing a room with their entire family, one room.
At this age, kids can say: “Wow, I cannot imagine not having my bed, my comforter. I can’t imagine not having my TV, my computer.” And then they realize what is really important and what you really need at the end of the day.
One of the things that I like about doing something that’s so “in your face” is that kids are able to [see] how these people are like them. They are the same age, but they don’t have a new backpack [or] a new jacket. Yet they really relate to them.
GreatSchools: What can parents do to make generosity part of their children’s daily lives?
Silverman: There are a few points you have to hit on. One is “How can we give of what we have?” I teach them about the t’s: treasures, times, talents, and thanks. I’ll say, “Your favorite clothes, your instruments that you use at school, your sports equipment — how can we give of our treasures?”
When you are buying things for your kids and upgrading, remember not to just put the old ones in the closet. Make them understand that “When I buy you this new backpack, it means the other one really needs to go to somebody else who is in need, because that’s one of our treasures. You loved it last year. Remember how you felt? Let’s give it to somebody else, so that they can have it for school.” Those kinds of things can be status symbols for that age group.
GreatSchools: How do you talk to kids at this age about giving their time?
Silverman: I call those time donations. It’s important for them to understand that spending a little time at a hospital with a child or an elderly person who doesn’t have family around is as valuable as, if not more than, the physical stuff.
Make sure that it’s not just your kids, but it’s you as parents modeling that kind of behavior. If you’re constantly focused on yourself, there is no way your child is going to learn how important it is for them to step up and spend some of their time on someone other than themselves.