By Janeen Lewis
Like most parents, I often wonder what kind of adults my children will be when they grow up. I hope they will become altruistic individuals, giving more to the world than they take. But my children are constantly bombarded by messages from billboards, celebrity figures, and TV commercials that scream the opposite: Pursuing one’s own luxury and comfort leads to happiness.
How do parents tune out the mantra of “gimme” and replace it with a spirit of generosity? This may not be as daunting as it seems. Try these simple steps to put your child on the path to philanthropy.
Model a life of giving
“Children are watching all the time and you need to walk the walk,” says Ellen Sabin, author of The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving. “There are dozens of things that you can do every day to demonstrate giving. When kids see parents doing those things, they want to do them, too.”
Sabin wrote the book about giving as a gift for her 6-year-old niece.
“It was a recipe for a happy life,” she notes. “I was hoping to show her she was powerful and could change the world around her, and that it feels good to do that.”
Adopt a charity annually
Sabin suggests family members choose a charity to support each year.
“Join an annual walk for autism, cancer, or any other charitable cause,” she says. “When you are at the dinner table talking, decide how you want to spend your philanthropic dollars together.”
Since children often connect with helping animals, consider a charity walk that benefits pet rescue or animal adoption.
Another idea would be participating in Heifer International’s Read to Feed, a program in which an individual child or group of children find financial sponsors and then read a designated amount. The money they earn goes to Heifer International to provide education, tools, and livestock to feed millions of families around the globe.
Donate your time
While it is great to donate money whenever we can, it is also important to take time out of our busy schedules to help others. Take your children with you when you volunteer at a local homeless shelter, food drive, animal shelter, or school fundraiser. Occasionally deviate from your own schedule to do something special with your child. Children pick up on our subtle clues as to what is important, and that is how they will invest their time as they grow into adults.
Take care of the environment
One simple way to teach children to give is to teach them to be kind to the earth. Start a recycling program at your child’s school or pick up trash together. Grow a garden in your backyard or volunteer to work in a community garden. Donate some of the produce you harvest to a local soup kitchen. You will help others in need and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.
Recently my children and I volunteered during an annual waterway cleanup near our community. When we cleared a creek of litter with other helpers, it made an impression on my son, who felt a sense of accomplishment when he realized he was helping keep a habitat clean for creek life. Now he wants to adopt a stream to help monitor the quality of waterways in our community.
Keep it simple
I often feel overwhelmed when I consider all of the people and organizations that need help. But teaching children to help others includes more than donating time and money. Let someone check out in front of you at the grocery register or let other drivers go first in a crowded parking lot. Smile and say please and thank you to restaurant servers, store clerks, mail carriers, and trash collectors. Remind your children how much those employees improve our lives. Always look for opportunities to model kindness and compassion, and children will do the same.
Make giving part of everyday life
The Wright family makes it a point to practice random acts of kindness throughout the year. One day Brandi Wright and her daughter Vivian, who was 9 at the time, placed quarters in the rental slots of Aldi’s carts for other shoppers. Vivian and her father Anthony gave out helium balloons to strangers in front of Walmart just to brighten their day.
“One woman gave Vivian a donation to help pay for the cost of the balloons,” Wright said. “Vivian and her dad bought more balloons and gave more away.”
Sarah Crupi, a mother of six, teaches her children to be considerate when they visit others by including younger children when playing, helping the hostess, and picking up after themselves.
“I’ve heard several moms specifically request my children attend an event because they know that they can count on them to contribute and be helpful,” she says. “That is super rewarding to me as a mother!”
Give all year
During one holiday season I did my annual sweep, looking for cans of food that had sat in the pantry all year and clothes that were ready to go to Goodwill. As I did this, it occurred to me that more than consciously meeting someone’s need, I was treating giving like an end-of-the-year afterthought. I realized that if I really wanted my children to have giving spirits, I needed to give year-round and enlist their help.
Now my children and I routinely buy non-perishable food at the grocery and take it to a church with a food pantry. Every season we go through outgrown clothes and toys, and they help choose what to give away. We talk about who might be a good recipient for the items and where we should take them. I want my children to understand that giving to others is a way of life, not just something we do once a year.
Every day there are opportunities to give. Choose one and start down the road of lifelong giving with your child today.
10 Easy Ways to Teach Kids Compassion
1. Rake leaves, mow grass, or shovel snow for a neighbor in need.
2. Send care packages to a relative or friend who is away at college or in the military.
3. Visit your local nursing home and read to a resident.
4. Take a meal to a new mom.
5. Contact your local parks and recreation department to find out about volunteer events that keep your community’s parks and waterways clean. Participate as a family.
6. Start a lemonade stand or have a yard sale and donate your earnings to charity.
7. Volunteer at an animal shelter or pet store that sponsors pet adoption. Help clean up after, care for, and feed the pets.
8. Let your child choose a charity. They can earn money for household chores and donate the money to the cause.
9. Fill clear storage bags with items such as socks, hand warmers, change, a bottle of water, lip balm, and contact information for food banks and shelters. Pass the bags out your vehicle window to the homeless at intersections.
10. During the holidays, invite a friend who is alone or lives far from relatives to a family gathering.
10 Picture Books That Teach Kids to Care
The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving, by Ellen Sabin
14 Cows for America, by Carmen Agra Deedy
When Stories Fell Like Shooting Stars, by Valiska Gregory
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, by Mem Fox
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
Beatrice’s Goat, by Page McBrier
The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough, by Katie Smith Milway
Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts
Sam and the Lucky Money, by Karen Chinn
Kids’ Random Acts of Kindness, by Conari Press
Janeen Lewis is a freelance journalist and mom of two who has a heart for feeding the hungry and helping clean up litter in her community. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom’s Survival Guide, and GreenPrints: The Weeder’s Digest.