How Do You Teach Your Children Generosity?

Never too young to volunteer (Photo Courtesy of Feed My Starving Children)

How do you teach kids to be generous? How do you inculcate empathy and charity when need is absent, or more often, hidden in their daily routines? It’s a question well-off parents struggle with everywhere, and especially during holidays–when you have plenty, and you realize your kid has no idea it could be any different.

Because the point isn’t to shock the kids out of their innocence. Nor is to destroy their fun from the toys and treats, which in some cases (hello Diwali!) began well before Hanukkah and Christmas. Instead, the point is to do what this blog aspires to: inspire generosity. So, where do parents and caregivers start?

Start Early!

There’s a reason the pre-schools and elementary schools emphasize sharing and playing nice on the playground. We’re not all born generous. But as parents, educators, and anyone who’s ever accidentally dropped the f-bomb around a toddler can attest, kids are sponges. Start early, and generosity becomes a habit, just like brushing teeth or putting things away. And if it hasn’t become a part of your life yet, just start anyway. As the pediatrician told me on day one, “You’re the parent.” Parents and caregivers have more influence than is ever evident during the moment. How else to explain why most of us did indeed grow up to be normal well-adjusted people? (Operative word is “most.”)

Start Small.

Start with something the kid can absorb. Opening doors for people, offering a seat to an older person or someone who clearly needs to sit more than junior does, picking out a small gift for something like Toys for Tots, or buying an extra book to donate when you’re in the bookstore. They’re small things that kids can do. And they do not involve delayed gratification or the joy of giving, which may be unrealistic. (Let’s face it, it’s still unrealistic for many an adult.)

Start Nearby.

As Hurricane Sandy and the new PBS Frontline documentary Poor Kids made clear, there is need here at home in our own backyards. We just tend to forget them because the “emergencies that get the CNN effect” displace them from our immediate attention. We also have this image of what poverty and need look like, and we have our own baggage that keeps us away from the need under our own noses. But it’s here. And not for nothing does the proverb say, “Charity begins at home.”

Talk to Them!

Universally, parents and educators will tell you that talking to your kid is key. Use your judgement and consume the news together. Use age appropriate language to explore, question, and explain what is going on in the world, and why it is important to be aware of how we live, or don’t.

Don’t Underestimate Them.

As blogger Tamar Abrams recounts, “We became a foster family when my daughter, Hannah, was five. She quickly learned that there are children in our community who are neglected or abused or just needed some loving care. It wasn’t easy–she sometimes became jealous or resentful. But I still remember her holding a crying three-year-old who had just been removed from her mother’s care, soothing over and over, ‘It’s okay. We will love you.'” Hannah was all of 12 at the time.

Be the Change You Want.

As everyone gets older and busier, it gets harder to do something more meaningful, something that demands more than an additional purchase. But there are probably many age-appropriate opportunities to do good in your community–soup kitchens, food pantries, reading programs, big brother or big sister programs. Depending on your child’s age and maturity, you can do more. An unexpected upside? There’s nothing like a few hours at a soup kitchen for your child to realize that you, the parent, aren’t an ATM, or that your own efforts to provide a healthy happy childhood takes work.

Give Them the Pursestrings!

Are you bombarded with solicitations? Make the kids go through them with you! Let them pick out a cause, and let them fund something out of their piggy bank or allowance if possible. And watch them figure out what they have versus what they need, and what their “want” buys for someone else’s “need.”

Like much of parenting, there isn’t a secret to inspiring generosity in your kids–just start, set the example, and do it consistently. What other ideas do you have about teaching kids generosity?

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