By Kylie Kaspar
Most people are able to identify which traits they get from their parents—I know that’s certainly true in my case. But economist Mark O. Wilhelm wanted to explore whether values like generosity might also be passed down from parent to child.
Wilhelm, professor of economics at IUPUI and founding director of the Philanthropy Panel Study, has spent nearly two decades exploring prosocial behavior in the family through an economic lens. His background made him the perfect fit to work with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute on its latest report, Women Give 2018: Transmitting Generosity to Daughters and Sons.
Wilhelm found philanthropy in his search to find a way to incorporate his math and technical skills with social justice. He explains that his journey to an academic study of philanthropy began with his curiosity about the forces of social inequality, which led him to look more closely at the role inheritance plays in altruistic and prosocial behavior within the family.
“My first thinking about altruism was in the context of the family,” he said. “Altruism within the family became (an) interest in helping behavior at large, larger than just inside the family, and that’s what ended up connecting me to questions that are about giving and volunteering, (which are issues) that are of interest to people in philanthropy.”
In reflecting upon his childhood, Wilhelm notes that his parents’ approach to philanthropy, whether formal or informal, has had a lasting impact on his charitable behavior. Rather than focusing on the amount donated, Wilhelm emphasizes that his parents relayed a charitable spirit. Their involvement with and donations to charitable organizations taught Wilhelm “the idea that you don’t have to spend on yourself everything you earn or get. It’s OK not to do that. Although that sounds like a simple thing, that’s a hard thing to learn.”
Wilhelm hopes that people who are concerned about instilling philanthropic values in their children will benefit from the latest Women Give report and explicitly model habitual behaviors of giving, something that he has altered in how he displays his own philanthropic interests to his family.
“It helped me realize, ‘well, we have to be sure they know this is important,’ ” he mused. “Money is a part of it. You’ve got to get used to the idea that you can set aside something and it’s really OK, but the second thing is the time. It takes time, and time is what’s really, really scarce.”
Time is key in transmitting values from parent to child, regardless of gender. Parents must be intentional about investing time in talking about or displaying philanthropic behavior to both sons and daughters. Wilhelm says Women Give 2018 indicates that “it looks like there are different socialization mechanisms that are working for daughters and sons.”
Whether through role modeling or discussion, parents will inherently always have an influence on their children’s behavior, but researchers have only just begun to investigate how values, motives, and attitudes are passed down.
“That would be a fantastic thing to learn about. We are really at the early stages of understanding how motives connect to charitable giving,” Wilhelm noted.
As we concluded our interview, I asked Dr. Wilhelm if he had any final thoughts. “Not really. I had a joke lined up, but…” he trailed off.
I offered to set him up for the joke, if he wanted to hint at how I might do that, though he refused. “Nah, it’s a bad joke. But that’s also a part of being a parent—making bad jokes.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “My dad definitely passed that on to me. I’m really good at the bad jokes. And I think I’m hilarious, but I got that from my mom,” I said.
“There you go!” laughed Wilhelm. “That’s a good way to end.”