In the December issue of The Atlantic, Adam and Allison Grant put forth a novel idea that is backed up by a substantial amount of research. It is a bit counterintuitive but the numbers don’t lie.
We all want to see children who are compassionate; who are willing to give and lend a hand when needed. Few of us will say otherwise but those virtuous words are not reflected in our actions. Anyone who has dealt with small children for any length of time knows that their filter for speaking the truth is about as good as our 80 year-old grandpa. They will call you out at the drop of a hat while staring up at you with the sweet little face of an angel. Children see through the lip service we give to being nice and sharing because of our actions and reactions to being first, getting ahead and winning. We celebrate the accomplishments of children and give no notice when they show compassion for one of their peers. Even though we preach share and share alike, children learn very quickly that sharing is not what makes our eyes light up or causes us to heap praise upon them. It is when they vanquish their foes on the field of play, the classroom, the court or any other area where a competition can take place that their efforts are celebrated.
We can brush those behaviors off by telling ourselves that we just want the best for our kids, but what are we teaching them? The Grants sited an experiment carried out in a number of American cities in 2001 and again in 2011 where thousands of letters were scattered around to give the appearance that they had been lost. The number of lost letters picked up and put in mailboxes decreased by 10% between the first experiment and the second. This is not the only measuring tool they used to make their point.
The biggest surprise was the level of success achieved by kids whose parents went the extra mile to preach compassion as well as demonstrate and praise it. These children performed better in school, were less anxious or depressed and in their adult lives were more likely to be promoted which resulted in higher incomes.
Our children are born with an unlimited capacity to give. All we have to do is nurture that innate quality through the terrible twos and preserve it by showing and not just telling them how to become helpful and compassionate adults.