First steps toward altruism for children

Lily’s started to voice interest in poverty. “There are no poor people in this country,” she asserted the other day. I assured her there are. Yesterday she asked if there are poor people living near us. Yes, I told her. “Maybe we could visit them!” she said hopefully.

So here I am, researching where we can drop off donations for local low-income children. (I figure her circle of ethical concern is pretty small, and we’ll start with the next level out.) Giving goods instead of money, and giving locally at all, is the kind of thing I’ve written against for years. I desperately don’t want her to get stuck at this stage, of only giving to people whose situations resemble hers and in ways that are convenient for her rather than useful for them. But she’s three. I’ll start where she is.

She saw me looking at the website and asked what it was. I explain that we can give money or clothes to children near us who don’t have things they need. I tell her she can do this if she wants. “Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow after dinner,” she says, sounding suspiciously like my “Not today, thanks,” every time I walk past a sidewalk fundraiser.

Soon we’ll do this same routine with environmentalism. Her school will teach her to never let faucets drip, to use efficient lightbulbs, to recycle. These are things children can affect, but I’m scared about how many of them stay here. If she’s anything like me, she’ll try to optimize the salient things (how much energy does a hot shower use? did I clean this peanut butter jar well enough before recycling?) when there are much better things she could be using her time, attention, and willpower on.

I want her to feel that she can take part in making things better. I also want her to understand, eventually, that optimizing your personal consumption and habits are horrifyingly far from adequate. They are good at helping you feel better. They are not good at fixing the world’s problems.

No answers here, just questions. I’ll let you know if we find things that seem to work.

More on this topic from Thing of Things: Effective altruism and children

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