This past Valentine’s Day, our son and daughter each got cards in the mail from their grandparents. Inside our son’s card was a ten dollar bill. He immediately became very excited, with a wide smile and look of excitement on his face. I imagined that images of a new action figure or some type of toy was dancing through his head.
He pulled the money from the card, his smile still ear to ear, looked at Meg and I and said “I know exactly what I want to do with it!”
Here it comes. We braced ourselves for whatever store he’s earmarked this for already.
“I want to donate it to someone who doesn’t have a lot of money so that they can use it.”
Flabbergasted. The only way to explain our reaction as we stood there taking in the response that we completely did not expect.
Don’t mistake my surprise for anything but, as despite my shock, Meg and I were so incredibly proud to realize this is where our little guy’s heart lies. Trips down the toy aisle, looking through store ads, or the ubiquitous little mini catalogs that seem to come with many of his Imaginext action figures could often make us think that’s all he thinks about, point to each one he wants (and it’s usually the equivalent of, oh, all of them).
But here, faced with the reality of cash in his hand, he wanted to give it away, to help someone less fortunate than he and it meant the absolute world to see.
Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
During a 2008 talk at Stanford University, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany discussed about his research on “processes of social cognition, social learning and communication, and language in human children and great apes” and very notably, the idea of altruism and its natural occurrence in children.
According to Tomasello, children have an almost instinctual desire to help, inform and share, doing so without expectation or the desire for a reward.
“There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization,” Tomasello said during the discussion as chronicled by the Stanford Report.
As the children grow older, though, their spirit of cooperation becomes shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. As they become more aware of what’s around them, Tomasello says they also become more worried about what it means to be a member of a group.
“They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation,” he said. “But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others – their public reputation and self – as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves.”
In contrast, Tomasello’s studies showed that apes were in it mostly for themselves. Undergoing similar experiments as the children were, the apes had the ability to work together and share but instead chose not to do so. He says that while a child’s sense of guilt or shame might guide a decision to share candy with another child who helped them get it, the apes had no qualms about working with another to get a piece of food and then keeping it to themselves.
According to Tomasello, human beings have a sense of “we,” a shared purpose, a bond that he says explains even simple social norms such as what makes it rude to walk away from an activity with another person without any type of advance warning.
“This sense that we are doing something together – which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations – is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case,” Tomasello said.
Uniquely human. Yet it’s amazing how many of us, so uniquely human in our altruism at that early age, have it fade away as the years go on, focused more on how any given situation, person, or the world, can benefit us, rather than those around us. I think that we’re all guilty of it.
So what do we do? How do we help a child maintain that sense of heart and generosity? How do you foster it now so that they can keep it as they continue to age? And is there a way to turn back the dial on ourselves and shed the selfishness that for some come with age?
I have no idea. I wish I knew the answers.
What I do know, though, is how proud Meg and I are of the boy he is today and have no doubt he’ll continue making us proud for many years to come.
A castle turned restaurant. Candlelight. Fine wine and amazing food late into the night.
This was a Valentine’s Day for my wife and I several years ago in the days before parenthood.
As I write this in the present, two kids later, it is again Valentine’s Day. There is no wine. Just a large supply of juice, water and hot tea. Amazing gourmet food replaced with bowls of hot soup. And I am the only person awake in our house – a rare sight on any given day, but particularly lately.
We’ve been sick. All of us.
Our son led the charge in this battle that he’s been fighting for over four weeks now. We’ve been to the doctor’s multiple times, the latest diagnosis being that whatever virus he’s been battling has turned into an ear infection.
I came down with it this past week and have been struggling to stay coherent for days.
Yesterday, my wife and our 3 month old began their path down the road to the sickness.
High fevers, constant hacking, headaches, noses that don’t stop running teamed with heads that won’t stop stuffing up, achiness in the bones.
It’s been a ride. I keep thinking back to sick days when I was single. Or even when it was just the two of us. The sick days usually consisted of tea, soup, TV, reading, and general lounging or sleeping as much as possible. The lounging/sleeping part being virtually impossible as a parent.
Being sick can cause irritability in anyone, but in the body of an already energetic three year old, that crankiness and obstinance gets knocked up to 11. That means any energy we adults have managed to muster or conserve amid the late night wake ups, comforting, medicine administration, feedings, diaper changes, etc quickly goes out the window in trying to negotiate with this little version of yourself who seems to want to thwart your every attempt at making him feel better at every turn.
Seriously. When I was sick as a kid, I loved being curled up with a blanket watching cartoons or looking at comics. Not our three year old. Sickness be damned, he is running, shouting, playing, dancing with as much boisterous energy as a Broadway show.
So it’s been trying. On all of us.
We exchanged Valentine’s Day cards in the morning amid coughing up our lungs into our tea (and the little guy’s juice), my wife surprising me with a DVD of one of my childhood favorites – Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks with Angela Lansbury and I her with a copy of the recently published The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney.
Other than that, we have done nothing all day with little regret. Between subzero temperatures outside and the virus that won’t quit, I can’t see any reason to even want to exit our warm home.
And on top of all the human sickness, one of our beloved cats is also ailing. He’s had a history of health issues since we found him, but it doesn’t make us worry any less. The veterinarian just prescribed some new medication to try a new approach to one of those ongoing health issues – his ear, which constantly gets filled with gunk no matter how much it’s cleaned out. While he’s still eating and drinking, he has suddenly become incredibly lethargic, and won’t/can’t open one eye. That same eye has been draining clear liquid as well, leaving a household already juggling sickness among four, adding a fifth to the roster.
Hacking and sniffling all the way, I got him to the vet where we learned he’s suffering from a form of conjunctivitis, also known as Pink Eye. Luckily for us that just means eye drops for the next several days and a return to the vet next week. As well as keeping the little man from getting too close to the all too catchy Pink Eye – a feat for Hercules, asking a three year old to keep away from the kitty while he’s sick and said three year old not seeing it as an invitation to do just that.
So yes, sick days have changed. Yes, Valentine’s Day has changed. But also, so what?
With parenthood comes responsibility. Sure, it may have been easier to rest up when you only had yourself to worry about, but who said parenting was easy? And Valentine’s Day? Let those who can’t help try to out-post each other on social media about how great their evenings are keep on clicking away during their evenings. Tis okay. Enjoy yourselves. Sincerely. Go ahead. Though I don’t know how much enjoying you’re doing if you have to take the time to convince the online world about it, but I digress, a post for another time, I suppose.
This Valentine’s Day, I was right where I wanted to be – with my loved ones. The sniffly noses, the coughs, the sleepless nights, I’ll take it. Cuz you know what? We’re in it together – war buddies in this battle against a virus so stubborn it wanted to take all four (five with the kitty) down together. But it won’t. It may win a few battles, sure. We may retreat to our cold mists and our hot teas here and there, but in the end, we will win, because we’ve got each other to care for. It’s where our hearts are.
And really, isn’t Valentine’s Day about love? Which is really about having your heart in the right place?