All kids are born with an innate sense of charity and compassion. Sure, it's easy to lose sight of that fact as we listen to our little ones clamor for the hottest toys, tastiest treats, and trendiest clothes. But if we look closely, the signs are everywhere. Watch your 2-year-old stop to offer a wailing baby a comforting toy. Catch your 5-year-old consoling a pal who has just been walloped by a playground bully.
"Children naturally look for ways to make a contribution and help others," says Deborah Spaide, founder of Kids Care Clubs, a national organization based in New Canaan, CT, that provides information on community-service projects for youngsters. "But just as we give our children opportunities to use their legs when they're learning to walk, we need to give them opportunities to exercise their charitable muscles so they become really good at giving too."
The benefits of actively fostering children's charitable impulses are enormous. Besides helping counter the overdeveloped "gimme" impulse, it gives kids a powerful boost in self-esteem to realize they can make a difference in someone's life. "And as corny as it sounds," says Patricia Schiff Estess, a New York City writer and the author of Kids, Money & Values, "when you help a child help others, you are helping to create a better world." Here are the best ways to go about it.
Diane Harris is writing a book on women and finance.
Most people tend to associate charity with giving money. We write a check to our favorite cause, drop a few dollars in the basket at church, participate in school fund-raisers, and feel good about our efforts. But preadolescent children may have trouble understanding such an abstract concept as donating money to a worthy cause. "It's hard for kids to grasp that the money is going to, say, buy bread, which in turn will help feed ten homeless people," says Spaide. "Many children can't take the process that many steps forward in their minds."
Spaide encourages parents to let their children experience charitable giving firsthand. Even a preschooler can help a parent bag lunches for a soup kitchen, distribute socks to the people in a homeless shelter, or clean an elderly neighbor's yard. And as children grow, so do their opportunities for making a difference.
In choosing a project, try following your child's lead and interests. The more you let her direct the process, the greater the involvement she'll feel and the more she'll learn from the experience. Suppose your 6-year-old has expressed concern that poor children don't get enough toys. You might ask her if she can think of ways to collect and distribute toys to needy kids. Perhaps she'd like to do extra chores around the house to earn some money to buy the toys herself. Or she might suggest posting a sign in school to solicit toy donations from her classmates.
Of course, if your child is stuck for inspiration, there's nothing wrong with gently leading her to a worthy path. One book that's full of ideas for suitable projects: Spaide's Teaching Your Kids to Care. Also consider helping your child band together with friends to do good works by helping her launch a Kids Care Club.
PUT THEIR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
An allowance can be as handy a tool for fostering charity as it is for teaching other aspects of money management. Peggy Houser, a Denver financial planner and author of How to Teach Children About Money, advocates starting an allowance system as soon as your child starts school (or even earlier if you think he can handle it) and dividing the weekly dole into three parts, each clearly earmarked for a specific purpose: spending, saving, and sharing. Explain that the sharing portion is to be used for gifts to charity, and couple your explanation with a simple statement of your philosophy on the subject, such as "Our family believes it's important to share our good luck with people who are less fortunate."
The exact percentage of the allowance you apportion to charity doesn't matter; what is important is simply to incorporate giving into the child's budget. "The goal is to make giving money to those in need a routine," says Houser.
What you encourage your child to do with the money is key too. Instead of simply giving cash to a worthy organization once he has accumulated a reasonable amount, suggest that he use the money to buy a toy for a poor child or socks for a homeless person or some other item needed by someone in serious straits. Then take him to deliver it.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
You don't need to set aside a special time to talk about the importance and joy of giving. Opportunities pop up all the time. Passing a homeless person on the street, for example, might be a good occasion to talk about the fact that some families don't have enough money to pay for a place to live. Visiting an elderly or ailing relative might be the right moment to discuss how important it is to reach out to people in need. Says Spaide, "The idea isn't just to sensitize your child to some of the pain and suffering in the world, but to give her the great gift of thinking that she has the power to help make it better."
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
As with everything else in life, kids learn best by example. You don't have to regale your child with tales of your charitable works or keep him glued to your side while you serve meals in a soup kitchen to prove that you care too. But neither should you hide everyday acts of kindness. If you're taking a meal to a friend who has just gotten out of the hospital, say so. If you help raise funds for worthy causes through your church, temple, or local community group, talk about it. If you give money to an organization you believe in, explain why doing so is important to you.
By talking about to whom and how you give, you not only show your kids the importance of giving itself, but you're sharing your values about the issues that matter most to your family—whether you're passionate about supporting the arts, cleaning up the environment, assisting the elderly, or helping to alleviate poverty and homelessness. Although some parents may worry about exposing young children to painful experiences that might haunt them later, Houser thinks the joy inherent in giving far outweighs any sadness they may encounter. She notes, "Kids can handle so much more than we give them credit for."
So can moms and dads. Busy parents who have found it hard to devote time to worthy causes outside their own homes may well discover that teaching their children to give back to the community is an ideal way to get back in touch with their own charitable impulses. "We call it trickle-up charity," says Spaide. "The effort starts with the kids, but the parents often get the biggest payoff of all."