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Raising charitable children: the effects of verbal socialization and role-modeling on children’s giving


This paper uses nationally-representative data from the PSID and CDS to estimate the causal effects of two parent socialization actions—talking to children about giving and role-modeling—on children’s decisions whether or not to give to charity. We develop an identification framework based on the intra-household allocation and cultural transmission literatures that shows how different assumptions about parental response to time-varying unobserved changes in children’s prosocial values can be combined with the child fixed effects estimate and the difference between siblings’ over-time-differences estimate to infer a bound on the causal effect of parental action to socialize their children. Under the identifying assumption we think is most reasonable for socializing the willingness to give to charity, that parents treat the socialization actions of others as cultural substitutes, our estimates imply that talking to children about giving raises the probability of children’s giving by at least .13. We find no evidence that parental role-modeling affects children’s giving, except among non-African-American girls. The identification framework and substantive results have implications for those with a general interest in using data from naturalistic settings to estimate causal effects of parental socialization actions, those interested in the external validity of laboratory findings, and those interested in the socialization of warm glow.

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Fig. 1


  1. In our model, the unobserved heterogeneity is a child’s willingness to give to charity, and this willingness has both a time-constant and a time-varying component. We will refer to the time-constant component of heterogeneity as the child’s “prosocial endowment” and the time-varying component as the child’s “prosocial values.”

  2. For examples of role-modeling experiments see Bryan and Walbek (1970), Dressel and Midlarsky (1978), Grusec et al. (1978), Israel and Raskin (1979), Owens and Ascione (1991), Rice and Grusec (1975), Rushton (1975), White and Burnam (1975); cf. Lipscomb et al. (1983). For experiments that involve verbalizations see Dlugokinski and Firestone (1974), Dressel and Midlarsky (1978), Eisenberg-Berg and Geisheker (1979), Grusec et al. (1978), Israel and Brown (1979), Israel and Raskin (1979), McGrath et al. (1995), Perry et al. (1981), Rice and Grusec (1975), Smith et al. (1983); cf. Bryan and Walbek (1970), Lipscomb et al. (1983). These lists are not exhaustive: see Eisenberg et al. (2006) and the earlier Eisenberg and Fabes (1998) for authoritative reviews.

  3. The connection between cultural transmission and intra-household allocation was apparent early on, see Becker and Tomes (1979).

  4. In the second example, complementing and substituting parental responses are characterized by π 1>0 and π 1<0, respectively, because the example is based on there being one child in the family. As we are about to see, if there are two children, parental complementing is characterized by π 1 + π 2>0, and substitution is characterized by π 1 + π 2<0.

  5. The difference between siblings’ over-time-differences estimator has also been called “difference over time between siblings” (Levine et al. 1997).

  6. It can be shown that: @@

  7. To be clear, by “relative” we mean relative to other (π 1, π 2) pairs on the same \(\sqrt {S}\)-circle. Pairs (0, π 2) have moderately strong compensation/complementarity (if π 2>0) or moderately strong reinforcement/substitution (if π 2<0) relative to other (π 1, π 2) pairs on the same \(\sqrt {S}\)-circle. By “moderately strong” we mean that (a) the (0, π 2) pairs on the \(\sqrt {S}\)-circle are midway between zero compensation (on the π 2 = π 1 line) and the strongest compensation (on the π 2=−π 1 line) combined with (b) being midway between zero complementarity (on the π 2=−π 1 line) and the strongest complementarity (on the π 2 = π 1 line), or (c) midway between zero reinforcement and the strongest reinforcement combined with (d) zero substitution and the strongest substitution. If S is small then compensation/complementarity (or reinforcement/substitution) are small in terms of the parent’s absolute overall response.

  8. Estimation of the parent talking and role-modeling coefficients in Table 6 using the weights produces qualitatively similar results. For example, in column 4, the estimates are 0.103 (0.046) and 0.004 (0.052), respectively. For the sibling models, it is not clear which child’s weight from the two available in each sibling pair should be used. Therefore, to maintain uniformity of presentation across the tables, we present the unweighted results.

  9. The argument that the evidence implies γ 1γ 2=0 is somewhat more involved because while γ 1γ 2=0 is a sufficient condition for b J = b JT and for b T = b JDT, it is not a necessary condition. Specifically, it can be shown that the alternative to γ 1γ 2=0 that would also imply b J = b JT is: \(\gamma _{1}-\gamma _{2}=(\pi _{1}-\pi _{2})+{\sigma _{u}^{2}}/\left [(\pi _{1}-\pi _{2 })\sigma _{\theta }^{2}\right ]\). Likewise, \(\gamma _{1}-\gamma _{2}=\left [\left ({\pi _{1}^{2}}+{\pi _{2}^{2}}\right )\sigma _{\theta }^{2}+{\sigma _{u}^{2}}\right ]/\left (\pi _{1}\sigma _{\theta }^{2}\right )\) would also imply b T = b JDT. However, if both of these alternatives were true, then π 1 and π 2 would have to satisfy \(\left [R-\left ({\pi _{1}^{2}}-{\pi _{2}^{2}}\right )\right ]\times \pi _{2}=0\). Then, Eq. 18 would imply b T = b JT, which is not compatible with our estimates.

  10. In a specification that follows Table 6 column 2, the probability that the child gives in both years is 12.6 percentage points higher (s.e. = 0.041) if the parent gives in 3 or 4 years out of 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007.

  11. Most experiments have found that empathy-based, other-oriented induction—emphasizing to the child the positive effect giving will have on the emotional well-being of people to be helped—has a positive effect on children’s giving (Dlugokinski and Firestone 1974; Eisenberg-Berg and Geisheker 1979; Grusec et al. 1978).


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This work was funded by the Notre Dame Science of Generosity project. The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Research Fund also provided financial support. We are grateful to the foundations, corporations, and individuals who, since 2001, have funded the Philanthropy Panel Study (the generosity module in the PSID). These include The Atlantic Philanthropies, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation. Our thanks go to the editor and two anonymous referees for insightful feedback.

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Correspondence to Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm.

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Ottoni-Wilhelm, M., Zhang, Y., Estell, D.B. et al. Raising charitable children: the effects of verbal socialization and role-modeling on children’s giving. J Popul Econ 30, 189–224 (2017).

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  • Fixed effects
  • Sibling models
  • Intra-household allocation
  • Cultural transmission
  • Warm glow
  • Philanthropy
  • Public goods

JEL Classification

  • J13 (Children; Youth)
  • D64 (Altruism; Philanthropy)
  • C23 (Panel data)