How to Raise Generous Teens

Raising Generous Teens

Young people all over the world are demonstrating how generous they can be. In Britain, 18-year-old Sebbie Hall’s “kindness marathon” raised $39,000 for charity during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, Colorado high school sophomore Haylie Clayburn was awarded Youth of the Year for volunteering to mentor younger members at the local Boys and Girls Club. And in my own backyard in Pennsylvania, my 8-year-old daughter and her friend held a bake sale and donated the proceeds to the Ukrainian Red Cross. (Proud mom moment). Generous acts such as these serve many purposes and may even be integral to our survival as a species. 

photo of two young girls holding a sign that says, "sweets & treats"
Photo courtesy of Elyse Salek

Generosity is defined as “giving good things to others freely and abundantly,” according to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity project. It comes in many different forms, like donating money, volunteering, or helping a friend or neighbor. We all have the capacity to be generous. This character strength emerges most strongly during adolescence (between the ages of approximately 8-22). During this time, young people acquire a more complex understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others. They also gain the ability to regulate their behaviors, impulses, and responses.

...when we offer young people opportunities to give back, we build the next generation of leaders who will create a more connected and equitable society for all.

The Benefits of Generosity

Encouraging teens’ generosity benefits the giver, receiver, and society. Those who give back are happier, more confident, and less likely to take certain risks. In particular, generosity:

  • Releases feel-good endorphins (chemicals in the brain) that boost our mood
  • Improves physical health and allows us to live longer
  • Reduces stress and increases resilience
  • Enhances our ability to connect and build close social relationships 

Furthermore, when we offer young people opportunities to give back, we build the next generation of leaders who will create a more connected and equitable society for all. Given these clear benefits, what can parents do to raise generous teens?

How to Encourage Generosity

Parents can nurture their children’s emerging generosity with these five strategies. 

  1. Practice generosity in your own life. Teens with parents who give to charity or volunteer are more likely to do so themselves. Talk to your teens about when and why you choose to give back. “Our children are watching us. If we want them to be happy, healthy adults who contribute to their communities, we have to show them what that looks like,” shares CPTC’s Executive Director and mother of three, Dr. Jillian Baker.
  2. Promote humility. Humble people – those who have a good sense of themselves and appreciate how much others can contribute to the world  – are also more generous. Spur your teen’s humility by supporting them to accept their strengths and limitations. Point out that we are all uneven. Expose them to diverse points of view and people from different backgrounds. Help them learn to hear others’ ideas, ask for assistance, and seek feedback. One of the best ways to foster humility in young people is to help them learn to value others’ viewpoints.
  3. Uncover passion areas. Talk to your teen about their interests, then search for opportunities that align with those interests. Do they like to read? They can volunteer to stack books at the library or tutor younger children. Perhaps they are passionate about the environment. They can organize a park clean-up or join recycling efforts in their school. Young people are more likely to give back if they are passionate about the cause. 
  4. Help them develop empathy and compassion. Teens are developing the ability to understand and have concern for the feelings of others. Parents can support these growing skills by guiding teens to recognize their feelings and consider other points of view. “In society today, there is so much compassion needed on the whole, and so I try to instill that in my kids daily. Sometimes just starting with smaller acts of kindness, like helping an elderly neighbor, can help them understand the importance of giving back to those in need in your community,” offers Dr. Baker.
  5. Reflect on personal experiences. Encourage teens to see how others have been generous to them. Over a meal or during a walk, ask your child to think of a time when a grandparent, friend, or neighbor gave something to them. Or, suggest that they write in a journal and reflect on times when they’ve experienced generosity. Get them started by sharing your stories of when others gave something to you that made a difference in your life. Or, check out these inspiring stories of generous teens making a difference in their communities.  

Generous actions play a vital role in our teens’ well-being and the welfare of others. And young people across the globe are doing their part. If your teen is unsure where to start, help them find the right opportunity. Check out VolunteerMatch for concrete ways to give back and get ready to soak in some proud parent moments. 

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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