Christmas will soon be upon us. What is likely to make you feel better — receiving a gift, or giving one to someone in need? Research is clear that, as the proverb goes, it’s better to give than to receive.
“Doing kind things makes you feel better,” says Andrew Miles, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. “It fulfils a basic psychological need, like giving our bodies appropriate food. It helps you feel like your life is valuable.”
Miles is currently leading a large, controlled study aiming to quantify the ways in which doing good may help to counter the anxiety and depression that currently undermines the health and well-being of many people in all walks of life.
And the need for kindness may have never been greater. The economic, educational and vocational stresses associated with the pandemic continue to take a toll. In addition, the media, the internet, and even neighbourhood streets are often filled with physical threats and hateful remarks directed at large segments of the population.
Although members of minority groups, be they racial, ethnic, religious or sexual, are increasingly willing to speak out against verbal and physical attacks and discrimination, many targeted individuals continue to suffer in silence. Little wonder that rates of anxiety and depression remain high.
Children, who can readily sense the emotional distress of their caregivers, often share the pain. But experts say there’s an antidote that could benefit everyone. They call it “prosocial behaviour”, or acting in ways that help other people.
In her recently published book, Social Justice Parenting, Traci Baxley, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University, emphasises the rewards of teaching compassion and kindness to a new generation. Her goal in fostering a more just world for all is to raise children “who can ultimately self-advocate, empathise with others, recognise injustice, and become proactive in changing it”.
Her book, which I found hard to put down, is replete with excellent examples and advice that can help parents raise children with a healthy self-image and regard for the welfare of others. She writes, “It is our obligation to teach our children to stand up and be allies for groups that are marginalised and silenced.”
Baxley, the mother of five children, tells me that upon returning to school after the pandemic lockdown, many young people experienced an increase in depression and social anxiety that can be counteracted by prosocial behaviour. “Just seeing compassion and kindness in action releases chemicals in the brain that helps them calm down,” she says. “It slows the heart rate and releases serotonin, which counters symptoms of depression.”
Prosocial behaviour may come naturally to some. Even children as young as two or three may spontaneously share a treat or toy with an unhappy playmate. But most children need to learn it from the same people who teach them to say “please” and “thank you”, and the earlier in life that happens, the better.
For starters, prosocial behaviour requires compassion and empathy, the ability to recognise and care about the needs and well-being of others. But compassion without constructive follow-up benefits no one. Step two is kindness, aka compassion in action. You may be distressed to see an elderly person struggling with heavy packages, but unless you offer to help or at least express a wish to help but explain why you can’t, your compassion goes to waste.
One of my proudest moments as a grandmother was learning that a grandson, aged six, comforted a classmate who had become motion sick on a school bus trip. While other children on the bus moved away in disgust, my grandson put his arm on the ill child and asked if he felt better.
As my four grandchildren continued to grow, I realised that all of them had too much “stuff”, and I’d been remiss by adding to the pile with my Christmas gifts of toys and clothes. Henceforth, I told them, I would give them money to donate to any nonprofit group they choose that works to better the lives of others or the world. One boy picked a tutoring programme for needy children; one chose an after-school sports programme; another with deep interest in the environment sent his gift to the American Forests; and the youngest, age 10, gave to a local food bank.
Baxley recounts similar episodes in Social Justice Parenting. She tells of a son’s excitement at finding a $20 bill, then soon after giving it to an immigrant family holding a sign that read “Can you please help us with our rent?”
Too often, Baxley said, parents place a higher value on getting good grades or winning at sport than on helping people who need it. She said it’s also important to foster a child’s emotional well-being by accepting and nurturing the child you have, not trying to forcefully create the one you want. A child who lacks athletic ability and spurns sport should not be made to participate in one because the parent values it and it could help the child get into college, she said.
As a parent of biracial children and an educator, Baxley recognises the challenges parents face when dealing with sensitive issues such as race, disability, gender nonconformity and homelessness. But she urges parents not to let fear stand in the way of productive conversations. She maintains that even the most difficult topics, such as racism, bullying, sexism and death, can be discussed sensitively and sincerely in terms that are age appropriate.
Here are some of her suggestions:
Listen and be attentive
Instead of trying to find solutions for your children’s concerns, she wrote, “listen with the intent to hear and understand their feelings. Don’t jump in and try to fix the issue or attempt to have the ‘right’ answers to their questions.”
It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it
You won’t always know the right things to say, but it’s important to acknowledge the child’s feelings, avoid being critical, say what you think without judgement and invite feedback. For example, if your young child asks why a homeless person is so dirty, explain that the person has no home and no bathroom and perhaps even suggest making a donation of clothing or food to a homeless shelter.
Take action when possible
When dealing with major events and social justice issues, like an environmental catastrophe, the death of a loved one, police killing of Black people, or protests against injustice, strive to clarify misinformation. Perhaps read a book together that helps children deal with painful events, and discuss what action they might consider to mitigate the circumstances.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times