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Generosity: Developing Altruism

Larry Brendtro and Lesley du Toit

Humans function best when they are part of a community of mutual social support. As they fulfil obligations to others, they discover that they are valued and esteemed.178 But for decades, psychology operated as if all human behaviour were selfishly motivated. Now, research on altruism has shown that caring for others is central to human nature.179 Moral development research validates what the great religious traditions long have taught, that concern for others is the foundation of character and morality. We learn morality not so much by what we are told than by how we are treated.

Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, noted that many modem youth suffer from the “misery of unimportance” and long to be used in some demanding cause. An “I’ll-get-mine” culture leaves students self-absorbed and devoid of purpose. Generosity is an antidote for this narcissism. Giving to others develops higher levels of moral development and provides youth a sense of purpose. Those who were once societal liabilities become valuable assets.

Through helping others, young persons discover they have the power to influence their world in a positive manner. Those who themselves come from troubled backgrounds are often the most responsive to others in need. Such was the case with a boy named Lance who noted:

I feel that the greatest thing one could give to another student is friendship. People who come from a negative home life, school is all they can look forward to and count on. I try to be nice to people and talk to people no one else will. I try to make them feel good about themselves. I do it a lot.

Genuine helping requires a spirit of generosity which reaches out in empathy to another. The philosopher Martin Buber concluded that those who set out to help others to satisfy their own needs are using others as objects. An authentic relationship is grounded in a deep respect.

Children ask the same questions as adults as they seek to find meaning in life. Youth whose lives are in pain and turmoil are among those most likely to pose deeply spiritual questions like “Why was I even born?” and “What is the reason to go on living?” Perhaps the best way young persons can find meaning in life is to commit to a purpose beyond self. We once asked teens in a detention centre if they had any hopes or dreams for their future. One boy responded, “No. That’s why we’re here.” As young people gain an understanding of their worth and value, they discover a sense of calling for their life.


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Coles, R. (1990). The spiritual life of children. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Gibbs, J. C. (1994). Fairness and empathy as the foundation for universal moral education. Comenius, 14, 12-23.

Greenspan, S. I. (1995). The challenging child. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley.

Hoffman, M. L. (1981). Is altruism part of human nature? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 40, 120-137.

Odney, J., & Brendtro, L. (1992). Students grade their schools. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 2(1), 4-9. p. 8.

Larson, S., & Brendtro, L, (2000). Reclaiming our prodigal sons and daughters. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Brendtro, L., Du Toit, L. (2005) Generosity: Developing Altruism. Response Ability Pathways. pp 49-50. Cape Town: Pretext

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