Raising a philanthropist
Are kids naturally selfish or caring? Emma Atwell has her theory.
Don’t you just hate it when your kids are kinder than you? My eldest has a special way of making me feel like a Scrooge. Driving around in our area, we encounter at virtually every street corner and shopping mall those less fortunate than ourselves.

The modus operandi is generally the same: after a few words of greeting and a request, I politely say ‘I have nothing today’. Then Boo pipes up. ‘Is that true Mommy? Do you really have no money?’ I squirm. ‘Well… I do but…’
‘You mean you LIED!’ comes a horrified little voice from the back seat.
‘Well… I didn’t exactly lie…’

It took a long time to explain to her that if I gave everyone money and bought everyone food every time I was asked, there wouldn’t be enough left for her, or me, to live on. But still, I cringe when I have to give the old excuse. So much so that I now give out far more than I can ‘reasonably afford’ (which is an irritatingly vague standard anyway) when she is in the car.

I could, of course, give more away… if I moved into a cardboard box on the side of the road. But I don’t think Boo would like that very much. For all her philanthropy, she looks after Number One.

Kids are watching us

But it brings to mind how our children notice what we do and learn from it. I remember growing up in the 80s and my father teaching me to greet everyone I passed on the road – no matter their colour or disability or social standing or appearance. I took this lesson to heart, greeting so hard on my way down the road I nearly fell off my bicycle. Despite the injuries, it was a good lesson, and probably one that defined my life path.

Is it one I want to teach my children? Yes and no. Value every human being, certainly, is a principle I hope they learn and keep, but it comes with certain guidelines in practise. Bear with me…

1. Unless it is someone you know or encounter on a regular basis or in a formal situation, save the greetings for when you are over 21. Or rather over 35 (these are my kids, after all).
2. Don’t strike up conversations with people you don’t know – self-preservation outweighs friendliness.
3. Acknowledge people who address you with eye contact and a smile. You don’t have to say anything, but just let the other person know you know they share this planet.
4. Give of yourself, but not until it hurts or worse. You will only end up needing instead of giving.
5. Don’t try to save the world until you have a tertiary qualification (preferably post-grad) in how to go about it.

Of course, these lessons will come in their own time. For now, I will be grateful I have a child who has the strength of character to question me when she feels I am being unjust. And I will let her keep her dream of growing up to be the millionaire who bought every homeless person a double-storey house and a limousine.

What should children learn about altruism?

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