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How do you persuade a teenager about the importance of altruism ?

My teenage son was looking into a day with nothing much in it when he asked, again, what he could do. He was bored.

I replied in exasperation, "I don’t know, give back to the community or something!" to which he replied, "Why, what have I taken away from them?!"

Ever the literalist, my boy.

Did I warm his languid soul with a brilliantly delivered lesson that changed the course of that holiday – perhaps even his whole life – forever?

Of course not, the subject was changed.

Here’s how the conversation might have gone. I’m going to try out an imaginary dialogue on the subject of altruism with my teenage son, weaving in a few insights from religion and ethics. Will it work?

Here goes:

Wise and brilliant Mother: Go and give back to the community!

Son: Why, what have I taken away from them?!

Wise and brilliant Mother: That's not the point. But it will make you feel good, it’ll give you a nice inner glow to do things for other people.

Son: [Looks sceptical]

Wise and brilliant Mother: I’m not making this up. This is a real thing psychological phenomena.

Son: yeah?

Wise and brilliant Mother: Yes, it can make you happy by releasing endorphins, a phenomenon known as ‘helpers high’. There’s a real joy in giving.

Son: So you’re saying I should help others just so I feel better about myself. Isn’t that selfish? You're only in it for yourself.

Wise and brilliant Mother: Well you get a high out of helping around the house, don’t you?

Son: That’s only because you make me. And threaten me with stuff like taking away the Xbox.

Imperfectly brilliant Mother: Er, yes, but as we keep saying, we are a team around here and everybody has to pull their weight. Just like you are a team member in this family, you are also a team member in the town and community, so you have to do your bit.

Son: Why?

Imperfectly brilliant mother: It’ll do wonders for your confidence, you’ll feel like you really make a difference, have a purpose.

Son: But that’s just the same as before. I'd only be helping others to help myself. How can that be right?

Imperfectly brilliant Mother: Well maybe look at it this way. You are not an island, you are connected in ways you can’t even imagine to every living thing on this planet, and to every person, and that includes all the people in this community.

Son: [rolls his eyes].

Imperfect Mother: Soooo, because you are connected, there’s also an interdependency and an obligation. You have to give, as well as take in this life. And it’s a short life, a really short life, so you have to do good things with it.

Son: Have you got cancer or something?

Mother: No, no, I haven’t got cancer. Why did you say..? Look, all the greatest teachers of wisdom and happiness that ever lived have told us this [waves arms about at no one in particular]. A good life, is a happy life. In service to others. You remember the Golden rule? ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated’.

Son: But why should I?

Mother: Because it’s saying, ‘I am human and I recognize you are human too. The things that hurt me, hurt you too. The things that benefit me, benefit you’. It’s really quite a profound insight. So basically, we all suffer and..

Son: Not suffering again..

Mother: ..We all suffer and we need to be mindful of our actions. We need to be consciously aware of how our own happiness is connected to the happiness of others.

Son: [doesn’t look convinced].

Mother: Look, bear with me. Try this out. Imagine you’ve come to the end of your life. You are on your deathbed…

Son: How did I die? Was I murdered?

M: I hope not.. look, that’s not relevant.. imagine you are looking back on your long and wonderful life, thinking about all the things you’ve done. When you think about those things, what will make you feel truly happy?

Son: Getting loads of money. And cars.

M: [exhausted]. Do you want to see what's on Netflix?

S: O.k.

That didn't work out as well as I hoped. I'd love to hear of how I could have done better.

Any thoughts?

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