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Giving is the Most Natural Thing in the World

By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson

I try to get our son, age 4, to share his toys, etc. with his younger sister or the kids at school, but everything is always, "No! Mine!" with him. I feel like I am swimming upstream, pushing against his nature. Then I think about the world and sometimes I wonder, are people just plain selfish?

You're right, some days you read the newspaper and have to shake your head in dismay and sorrow. Your question is poignant, touching, and profound: Are humans naturally more inclined to be domineering and selfish, or to be cooperative and giving?

Your Theory of Human Nature
How we answer this question leads right to how we raise our children (and conduct ourselves with others, write laws, establish governments, and so on). If our answer leans toward the domineering view, then it follows that people - including children - need substantial controls (both external and internalized) to get them to act right. On the other and, if the answer leans toward the cooperative view, then most people should be able to do alright with a lot of freedom to find their own way toward civilized behavior.

What's your own personal opinion about all this?
Of course, people are different. Some are very aggressive and exploitive of others, while some are very peaceful and generous. And wherever he or she is along that spectrum, almost everyone has the capacity to be both selfishly grabby and selflessly open-handed - just like preschoolers!

Further, much research about parenting keeps painting the same picture: the best-odds strategy for most children is to raise them with:

  • HIGH love, nurturance, acceptance, attunement, sensitivity, responsiveness, affection, interest

  • HIGH communication of moral values and support for being resilient, resourceful, diligent, ambitious

  • MODERATE parental authority, including an insistence that parents are the ultimate boss, clear standards, and potent rewards and penalties

In short, we firmly believe that parents must claim their authority, be morally self-confident, and take responsibility for the moral instruction of their children.

That said, we also believe that the great weight of evidence is on the side of the view that the tendencies to be cooperative and giving are much more central and stronger in most people than tendencies to be domineering and selfish. And to anyone who worries and cares about the world we are bequeathing to our children, this has got to be good news.

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