The Gratification of Giving

by E.A. Weiss

Kids love presents. Kids love things. They cry when they don’t get what they want and they cry when they do. Let’s say Kevin is crying because Suzie got the new Super Soaker he’s been asking for — he won’t be comforted by the fact that he might have the toy eventually, even if his birthday is in a week because he wants it now! It’s hard for him to understand that he will eventually be as happy as Suzie.

This is why it’s not easy to explain homelessness to a child: why some people have homes and others don’t. It’s even harder to explain charity. Children generally learn plenty about spending money, but little about giving it away (UNICEF is a good start, but their box program focuses on giving away other people’s money).

The problem with teaching children to share with someone who is not in front of them is an issue of deferred gratification — the same reason a person donates to a beggar in lieu of a charity. There is a tangible interaction when handing a dollar to the person who will spend it, but for most charities you don’t know exactly where your money goes; you know the general area your money will go towards, but you can’t be 100 percent sure, and picture a real event in your head. Some money will run an office refrigerator, and people don’t want to think they’re keeping some potato salad cold, even if a fridge is necessary to run a charity and the potato salad happens to be delicious.

Deferred gratification is an important and difficult lesson for a child to learn — a lesson that shows that time invested in certain activities (studying, practice, etc.) will pay off in the end. Walter Mischel’s classic Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and all of the subsequent studies show that children who wait to receive two marshmallows instead of immediately eating one are far more likely to do better in school, go to a better college, and earn more money. The study aims to prove that teaching children the benefits of deferred gratification are incredibly important to their development.

Another problem you’ll face when explaining charity to a child is the same problem everyone faces when they decide to donate: Which charity deserves your money? People often donate to what has affected them (if a woman’s mother dies from breast cancer, she is more likely to donate to support breast cancer research). Perhaps consider the practicality of your donation (i.e. how many people you’ll be helping) — is it better to fund research for an extremely rare disease that has a small endowment or is it better to choose a disease that kills many people and has a large endowment? What about foreign causes? And the arts and education (including your alma mater)?

I’m only recently at the point in my life where I have a salary and so I often wonder how much I can afford to give away. In this economy, people are saving where they can — more so than usual — and the first thing that often gets cut is philanthropic giving. If you can’t donate as much as you’d like to, you should make sure you’re donating wisely.

Some economists measure happiness or satisfaction by estimating what they call utility, which quantifies the positive impact something has on everything else. Bhutan uses utilitarianism to measure what they call their Gross National Happiness (GNH) in an attempt to measure quality of life (as opposed to the GDP). Ideally, a donation — and your life — would maximize utility, but it’s reasonable to donate to something you care about. In fact, it could be as productive because you’re more likely to take on a role that is more than a money-giver, even if that role is simply telling your friends about something you support. The utilitarian method for choosing charities should be used when you can’t decide between several organizations or you don’t have any specific preference in the first place. What should be emphasized to children, or anyone, is that deferred gratification can yield better results for the individual and society as a whole.

E.A. Weiss is a writer in New York. Follow him around. Photo: Shutterstock/Gemenacom