Kids Need to See Generosity in Action to Buy into Its Virtues

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers and was originally created to support the John Templeton Foundation and Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.

“It is better to give than to receive.”

We all grew up hearing this age-old adage, and most parents still hope to instill this message of compassion in their children. But are they accomplishing that goal? Do today’s youth place a higher value on giving to others than on satisfying their own personal interests and needs? A 2017 Harvard Graduate School of Education study suggests the answer to that question is “no.” The researchers asked 10,000 middle and high school students across the U.S. to prioritize their values, and found that 80% of the students chose personal achievement and happiness over caring for others.

This is concerning — especially in a world filled with divisiveness and growing social and racial tensions. Now, more than ever, we need to be raising a generation of children who are empathetic and kind, who genuinely care about the welfare of others, and who generously give to those in need.

How can we do this? What role can children’s media play in helping today’s youth become more caring and generous citizens?

One insight comes from controlled laboratory studies that have long supported the notion that observing someone else engage in generous behavior enhances children’s own generosity.

This robust finding has been shown to apply to both boys and girls, children of all ages, races, and socio-economic statuses. Additionally, the positive effect of observing a generous model has been shown when live models are used, videotaped models, and characters on TV shows.

Creators of children’s media are well-positioned to take advantage of this well-documented phenomenon by featuring characters who themselves display and model generous behavior. Characters in television shows, movies, story-driven games, apps, online videos, ebooks, etc., hold the potential to influence how kind and generous children become.

But let’s dig a bit deeper and ask questions to help fine-tune how media characters can best influence children’s generosity:

What Type of Media Characters Will Be Most Effective?

The more viewers connect with and relate to media characters, the more they will want to become like them. In the literature, this is referred to as “wishful identification,” and is strengthened when viewers regard media characters as similar to themselves in terms of demographic features (e.g., gender, race, and age). Perceiving demographic similarities tends to enhance viewers’ desires to emulate media characters through behavior, and by adopting their attitudes and values. Research has also found that wishful identification is enhanced when media characters are seen as kind and helpful, which is promising, given how challenging it can be to cover all your demographic bases. This suggests that generosity, in and of itself, will appeal to viewers and draw them closer to characters who display it.

Does It Matter What Characters in Shows or Apps Say or Do When Modeling Generosity?

Preaching about generosity doesn’t work with kids. It’s not enough to be told that generosity is important and expected — kids need to see it in action to buy into its virtues.

In a classic experiment, school-age kids were given the opportunity to donate their winnings from a game to children in poverty. The students first watched a role model play the same game either generously or selfishly. Then they listened to the model preach about either generosity or about selfishness. Those kids who observed the model behave generously, regardless of what the model said, donated considerably more than the norm. This was true even when the model preached the virtues of selfishness. Similarly, regardless of the model’s words, those kids who observed the model behaving selfishly donated considerably less than the norm. The bottom line: Children learn generosity not by listening to what role models say, but by observing what they do.

The message for media creators hoping to instill generosity in kids is clear: Make the message of generosity behavioral rather than verbal. Showing media characters behaving generously will always be more effective than having them talk about generosity and its virtues.

How Should Other Characters Respond to Generous Behavior?

We know that responses to children’s behavior can strongly affect their future behavior. For instance, to increase children’s motivation and achievement behavior, research clearly points to the value of reinforcing effort or behavior over ability and character. In the case of generosity, however, the opposite is true: Children are more likely to repeat a generous act if their character has been praised (“You are a generous person”) rather than the behavior itself (“That was a generous thing you did”). The reason being, when someone is told they are generous, it is internalized, and over time can become part of their identity. This type of character praise appears to be especially influential during critical periods of development, like adolescence, when the formation of a strong sense of identity is just as crucial.

This finding suggests that when media characters behave with generosity, other characters should explicitly comment on and praise their generous nature rather than the behavior itself.

This simple adjustment in dialogue and storyline can be powerful. Similarly, when apps or online games are developed with the goal of promoting generosity, the specific reinforcement offered to players when their responses are correct or positive (i.e., in keeping with the generosity message of the game) should always be character praise.

Aside from presenting great characters and role models for children to learn from and emulate, there are other ways in which the media can facilitate generosity. A number of research findings that seem particularly informative in this regard come from the field of neuroscience.

Generosity on the Brain

Recently, brain research on young children discovered that generosity was increased only when the children were thoughtfully reflecting upon the moral behavior of others. This is fascinating, and suggests that interactive media properties with built-in opportunities for kids to think about and reflect on what a character is doing — and to assess for themselves the rightness or wrongness of the act — will be most effective at activating generosity in the child brain.

An example, while not specifically addressing generosity per se, is The Social Express, a media property that features animated interactive webisodes that encourage kids to think about, analyze, and practice real-life social interactions. Efforts to create interactive media properties of this kind that engage and activate kids’ thinking about generosity would prove particularly fruitful.

Common Sense Media is another source for looking for inspiration for app or linear content creators. Brainstorm from its list of gratitude activities and tools for students.

And finally, a personal favorite research finding with respect to generosity, and one that has been well-documented across various studies: Generosity leads to happiness. Neuroscientists have even gone so far as to identify the specific brain mechanisms responsible for this direct link between generosity and happiness. We are biologically predisposed for generosity.

I particularly love this finding because it implies that, if we can get kids to engage in acts of generosity, we can hopefully activate a self-sustaining cycle of giving: Generosity leads to happiness, which itself serves as a powerful and natural reinforcer that increases the likelihood of future generosity, in turn leading to more happiness, and more generosity … and on and on.

So can children’s media play a role in triggering this self-perpetuating system? And are there ways to get children to behave generously as part of the media experience? Yes. An interesting media property that accomplishes this goal is Freerice, an ad-supported, free-to-play website that allows players to donate to charities by playing multiple-choice quiz games. For every question answered correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated to people in need through the World Food Programme. Anyone who has played Freerice knows how addictive it can be; to see onscreen the rice you have donated, and to know that someone in need will receive food because of something simple you just did, feels truly great and rewarding.

Which brings us back to where we started: “It is better to give than to receive.” And while today’s youth may not always know or believe that, hopefully tomorrow’s media will help them discover its truth.

Dr. Lynn Oldershaw is a developmental psychologist who has worked for the past 18 years in children’s media, first as an executive in charge of production for programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and currently as a children’s media content consultant for production companies in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

Prior to working in children’s programming, Dr. Oldershaw was an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and was the research director of CAMH’s Child Psychiatry Program in Toronto. Her research and clinical work focused on the factors that contribute to the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children.

Tags: Education, Developing Skills & Character

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