I remember the good-natured difference of opinion my dad and I had in my teen years about “nature versus nurture.” He would say that a person’s good traits were “in your genes,” and I would say, “It’s how you are raised.” – But when it comes to generosity, scientific studies have increasingly found that it’s due to both nature and nurture.

I love the old song from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young called “Teach Your Children Well,” and especially the surprise reversal of the phrase when they sing, “Teach your parents well.” That appealed to my change-the-world-starting-with-your-parents attitude at the time. Well it turns out that a science of generosity research project at the University of Notre Dame is measuring not only the origins of generosity in nature and nurture, but also the dynamic between parents and children, influencing each other to develop and internalize a disposition toward generous behavior. In other words, parents teach their children, and their children teach their parents, too!

That project, led by Ariel Knafo of Hebrew University, is conducting three complementary multi-year studies to investigate the genetic aspects of generosity (what you were born with), its environmental elements (how you were raised, your family and community), and the psychological dimensions of a generous disposition. They are also assessing how these key elements intertwine to contribute to generous behavior. It is complex, since the scientists define generous behavior as including three dimensions: social awareness, concern that arises out of empathy, and regard for other people’s welfare.

All together, these long-term studies reveal what Knafo and company call a “family cycle of kindness and generosity.” – So apparently not only both my dad and I were right, but also we had been influencing each other all along.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

See also: Gratitude’s Three Foundation Stones