12/18/2013 03:03 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

In Memory of Nelson Mandela: Nurturing a Spirit of Caring and Generosity in Our Children


We have lost, in Nelson Mandela, a source of inspiration and one of our greatest models of empathy, compassion and generosity of spirit. In his memory, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how we can honor Mandela and help nurture in our children a spirit of generosity and concern for others.

As parents, we are understandably concerned with our children's achievement. We focus our daily attention on helping them develop the skills they will need to succeed in a competitive world.

Most parents, however, want more for their children than individual achievement. We also want them to be "good kids" -- children who act with kindness and generosity toward their families, their friends and their communities. These are universal values, shared by parents who are secular and religious, liberal and conservative.

How can we best accomplish these goals? How can we nurture a child's feelings of empathy and concern for others, and a desire for giving, not just getting.

Empathy and Responsibility

Several years ago, psychologists Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Mussen presented a comprehensive review of research on the development of pro-social behavior in young children. They concluded that caring and helping behavior begins with empathy -- the empathy children feel from us and the instinctive empathy almost all children feel for others. Concern for others is then strengthened when children observe the caring behavior of admired adults and older children.

For young boys, a warm relationship with their father may be especially important. In one study, preschool boys who were generous toward other children portrayed their fathers as nurturant and warm, as well as generous, sympathetic and compassionate. Boys low in generosity seldom perceived their fathers in these ways.

Many parents attempt to promote respectful behaviour in their children with repeated lectures. This is rarely, if ever, successful. Across cultures, however, children who are given family responsibilities, including household chores and teaching younger children, show more helpful and supportive behavior toward their families and their peers.

In a more recent series of studies, Psychologist Ross Thompson and his colleagues found that children's moral development was strengthened when their parents spoke to them in a language rich in emotions and made frequent references to other people's feelings.

Supporting Children's Idealism

In thinking about children's moral development, we also need to remember the intangibles. Our children look up to us. They look up to us even when they are angry and defiant, and even when, as adolescents (or before), they challenge our ideas and rebel against our rules.

When a child looks up to us -- and, in return, feels our genuine interest, warmth and pride -- we have strengthened an important pathway of healthy development, a pathway that leads toward commitment to ideals and a sense of purpose in life.

Children are idealistic. Some of their idealism should survive the inevitable disillusionments of growing up. We can support our children's idealism by talking with them about people, like Mandela, who we admire and have inspired us. We need to let them know that there is good work to be done in the world, work that they will be able to do and can do, even now.

We should also talk with children about heroes who may not be famous, heroes of everyday life -- the people who build our cities, protect our safety and save our lives.

Doing for Others

A growing body of scientific research now supports an important conclusion: Doing good for others is also good for us. Most of this research has been conducted with late adolescents and adults. My personal experience suggests that doing for others is also good for children.

In a recent review, psychologist Jane Piliavin concluded that community service -- helping others as part of an institutional framework -- leads to improved self-esteem, less frequent depression, better immune system functioning and even a longer life.

In my clinical work, I now often recommend that parents find some way, especially as a family, to make doing for others a regular part of their children's lives. Children learn important lessons from helping others. They learn that they have something to offer, and they experience the appreciation of others. They learn how good it feels, to themselves and to others, to do good work.