Teaching Children to Be Empathetic Givers: 5 Tips to Avoid the “Othering” of Need

By Jenny Friedman, Ph.D., author of Doing Good Together

Teaching Children to Be Empathetic Givers: 5 Tips to Avoid the "Othering" of NeedTo celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, public television stations held sweater drives. The idea came from Fred Rogers himself, as a way to encourage giving without promoting an “us” and “them” attitude. His note to PBS stations contains important words for every parent:

“All of us at some time or other need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving a sweater, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connect us as neighbors—in our own way, everyone is a giver and a receiver. It’s far better to say to our children that we are gathering sweaters for people who are cold and don’t have the money to buy warm clothing, rather than ‘for the needy’ or ‘less fortunate.’ It may also help to let our children know that people who have money to donate or who have a sweater to give to a clothing drive have other kinds of needs. And those who receive the money or sweater or food have other strengths.” (From The Giving Box by Fred Rogers, Running Press Kids, 2000)

Most parents want to raise children who value generosity, act with kindness toward others, and have compassion for suffering. We want them to be grateful for what they have and to use their strengths to help others.

But we must also recognize the danger of becoming patronizing or feeling we have the answers to other people’s struggles. We must guard against seeing the world, as Mr. Rogers worried, as divided into “givers” and “receivers.”

To avoid this, remind your children that everyone needs help at times, that all of us have something to offer others, and that the world is a better place when we help one another out.

These tips can help you raise kind, giving children while avoiding an “us” and “them” perspective that can become an unintended consequence of serving others.

  1. Remember that the benefits are two-sided. Help children understand that doing for others brings as much (or more) to the giver as it does to the receiver. Giving can expand our understanding, develop skills, and give us a sense of purpose.
  2. Talk about times when you and your family needed help. Yes, we should encourage our children to help, but it’s equally important to tell stories about times when your family has needed help and how it felt to get it. Have you been ill and counted on others for meals? Needed help with childcare, a loan, or a roof over your head? Had a mentor? Tell your child about the people who’ve stepped up in your time of need and what it meant to you.
  3. Do 180s with your child. Have your child imagine the world from the point of view of others. How do you think your teacher feels when the class isn’t listening? How do you think your classmate feels when he’s laughed at? How do you think Grandma felt when she got your thank-you card? Do the same with the characters in books you share or movies you watch together.
  4. Focus more on similarities than differences. We have more empathy for people we consider to be like us. When we get to know people, they no longer feel so different. Help your children see the similarities between themselves and the woman you visit at the nursing home, the shy child in their class, or the man in a developing country who is seeking a loan to start a business. This practice will help your child resist forming stereotypes.
  5. Explain the issues behind the troubles. Rather than blaming those struggling with homelessness, food insecurity, or other challenges, help your child understand that these problems are often systemic. Homelessness can result from a lack of affordable housing, job loss, a fire or other natural disaster, domestic violence, or divorce. Personal issues such as mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and physical disabilities can also play a role. Talk about how you and others might work to solve the larger problem, not just alleviate the symptoms. And be careful about making assumptions with too little information.

These ideas will help build your children’s “compassion muscles” as they try to make sense of the disparities in the world and work to make a difference.

Jenny Friedman, Free Spirit AuthorJenny Friedman, Ph.D., is founder and executive director of Doing Good Together. She is a leading, national expert on family volunteerism. She works with schools, businesses, youth-serving organizations, and congregations in addition to families and groups of families. A sought-after speaker, Jenny has volunteered with her family of three children for more than twenty years. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Doing Good TogetherJenny is the coauthor of Doing Good Together: 101 Easy, Meaningful Service Projects for Families, Schools, and Communities.

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