If you ask parents what they want for their children, they most often say, “I just want my child to be happy.” However, so many parents attempt to achieve that goal via the distorted popular culture messages that communicate that happiness is produced by the attainment of wealth, and that is not healthy. This focus on self-esteem as the Holy Grail of child rearing has resulted in what many authors and researchers have termed The Age of Entitlement, letting developmental wellness stagnate in the pursuit of material gain.
Regarding the attainment of happiness, the research on this concept is clear; money and possessions do not equal happiness, either for us or our children. With so much at our disposal, what can we as parents do to put our children on the path to lifelong happiness?
Altruism promotes happiness
One of the primary sources of happiness and the development of character in our children is altruistic behavior or adaptive social engagement. Altruism is associated with happiness and elevated self-esteem both in childhood and adolescence. Children who engage in selfless giving appear to reap the same benefits that altruistic adults reap. Helping others in their community who are less fortunate provides children, especially adolescents, a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, qualities linked to happiness in adult life.
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Developmental psychologist William Damon, in his latest work, The Path To Purpose, writes about the need for an adolescent to find meaning and purpose in their lives as a critical facet of adolescent identity development.
Altruistic behavior can also elevate a child’s self-esteem, giving them a positive construction of themselves that stays with them, helping them lead a happier life well beyond childhood.
Giving back through some form of community service does much to strengthen both community and family. It teaches children not only the benefits of giving but also that one person CAN make a difference, and that one small act can make the world a better place.
We all look for chances to develop character in our children. By cultivating a sense of social responsibility we can teach our children to think beyond themselves and their own immediate needs, further enhancing their moral development.
READ MORE: Could you be praising your child too much?
Parents must be a model of social responsibility
What are some specific ways to help develop a sense of social responsibility? Children are much more likely follow our example and to do as we do, not just what we say. If we make volunteering and community service a priority activity involving our entire family, our children will recognize the importance of making a socially responsible contribution to society.
Some of the possibilities available to you and your children include working in a soup kitchen, having your child help deliver meals to the elderly in a “meals on wheels” program, developing recycling programs, collecting funds or needed supplies for disaster victims.
Social responsibility can also be taught by having your children donate part of their allowance to an organization chosen by the family, or to groups that help children in need like Heal The Children, or Children International. Resources for parents interested in getting themselves and their children involved in volunteering include the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
A 1999 research study in Child Development found that socially responsible behavior as a youngster was an excellent predictor of socially responsible behavior in adulthood. Let’s move our children away from this Age of Entitlement and make the next era The Age of Social Responsibility. We will all benefit.
Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups.