Walking through the park one autumn day, I passed some children selling hot chocolate. One girl, beaming, asked, "Would you like to help support our park and playground? It's only 50 cents a cup." Of course, I couldn't resist, or help being extraordinarily impressed that kids this young had a vested interest in improving their community. It seems that this group of kids, who were having great fun pouring hot chocolate and feeling pride that they were helping a local cause, already grasped a fundamental idea about reaching out to help others: it feels great! No matter your age or the size of your gesture, be it doling out drinks, baking cookies, donating toys to underprivileged kids, adopting a pet from a shelter, or giving clothing to homeless organizations, giving does a heart good.
This timeless lesson usually shines brightest around the holidays — a time when we pause to reflect on our good fortune and on those not so well off. But it's really an important year-round lesson, and not just because being charitable is the right thing to do. Giving to others helps counteract two major stresses on today's families:
- The onslaught of materialism with its emphasis on self-centeredness. From a constant barrage of commercial advertising — on TV, in the movies, and on computer screens — we are encouraged to "need" the next cool gadget, pair of sneakers, or toy. Our children are particularly susceptible to advertisers who zero in on their desire to fit in, which in turn can lead to a "gimme gimme" mindset early.
- The over-exposure to bad news, which breeds fear. In the past few years, terrifying images of violence and chaos have been difficult to avoid. From natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina to man-made trauma like the war in Iraq, these events haunt our children and can leave them feeling powerless and sad. The underlying anxiety of terrorism also falls into this category.
We can't completely shelter our children from these realities, of course. But we can combat their influence by teaching our children to give their time and talents to help others — an act that changes the way of the world.
The bottom line is that giving brings peace of mind. Serving those in need helps children learn firsthand that they can make a difference — that they have the ability to make a positive impact, at any age. This fosters a sense of control, helping them feel less frightened. It also reassures them that if they were ever in danger, help would be available.
Another important lesson is that we are all dependent on each other. When children serve others, they learn to connect to someone else's greater need and to care about other people. In the process, they learn empathy, sympathy, kindness, mercy, responsibility, and a host of other character-building qualities.
There are many other benefits to making charity a part of your family's life. You'll meet new friends and develop relationships. Running a bake sale will give your kids a chance to practice skills such as fundraising, money management, and teamwork. Self-exploration and discovery will come through their choice of activities. Best of all, it's easier than you think to become involved. Even the smallest gestures can bring big rewards.
The old adage "charity begins at home" holds true when it comes to your child's first experiences in giving. By assigning him a simple task that benefits the whole family, you can help him understand his role in a larger world. Be imaginative in your choice of tasks — for instance, try putting him in charge of picking up toys, helping to fold clean laundry, feeding the family pet, or stocking paper napkins in the holder. Make it a point to praise him for his efforts and thank him for his help.
Another easy introduction is to model your own philanthropic actions. After all, family values are more "caught" than taught. Let your child see you writing a check to your favorite organization and tell him why you are supporting a cause. If you have unwanted clothing to donate, include him in the selection, and take him with you when you drop off the duds. Baking cupcakes for a school bake sale? Let your kids stir the batter and help them understand how selling the finished product will benefit the school.
It's almost never too early to start. I've seen empathy in 18-month-olds, who will put down a toy and waddle over to help a hurt or crying toddler. Usually by age 3, children have the language skills and ability to reach out to others. Once you sense that development in your child, you can include him in your charitable activities.
As you'll see, giving doesn't have to be a grand gesture to be effective — you don't have to "save the world." Charity also doesn't have to be "medicine." It can be exciting and creative. Here are some age-appropriate ideas for contributing as a family:
Ages 3 to 5
- Develop a birthday-donation habit. Encourage your birthday boy to think about someone else by making a donation. (Don't choose one of his gifts — that's like a punishment.) To help him select a charity, ask, "What did you enjoy doing this past year?" or "What makes you happy?" You may find he wants to support Sesame Street or loves a certain kind of stuffed animal that he would like to donate to an orphanage.
- Make sandwiches for a homeless shelter. Call a local shelter and ask what they need. After making the sandwiches, decorate the bags and box. Introduce your child to the shelter director (to receive his or her thanks) and take joy in watching hungry people eat your gifts.
- Make cookies for the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) on Veterans' Day or Memorial Day. Talk to some veterans there and share stories at home about family members' military service.
Ages 6 to 9
- Ask your children to join you on a walk-a-thon for breast cancer research or another medical or community need.
- Create a charity jar in which your child can place part of her allowance each week until the jar is full. Then choose a charity for donation. To encourage your child's participation, empower her by giving her a choice of which charity she'd like to help.
- Pick up trash in the park just the two of you or with a group such as a Boy or Girl Scout troop.
- Write a letter to a soldier stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
- Help out an animal shelter. Children naturally love dogs and cats, and they can volunteer to help groom the animals or clean cages. Adopting a shelter pet as a family is a powerful lesson in nurturing.
Ages 10 to 14
- Encourage your children to work creatively with their friends to produce an "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent!" show to take to a local nursing home or senior center.
- Accompany a charitable agency while it delivers blankets to the homeless on a cold winter night. Your children will be stunned by their face-to-face encounters with poverty, and their appreciation and gratitude for what they have will increase dramatically.
- Ask your child to research charitable organizations online that deal with issues that interest him. You might suggest hunger, global warming, conservation, refugee camps, and so on. Which does he consider the best in terms of outreach, focus, or use of funds? As a family, listen to his rationale. Encourage him to use a percentage of his allowance to support that organization — enough to receive newsletters and email updates to learn how it fulfills its mission.
- Put your child in charge of household "collection." Ask her to sift through the family's closets and belongings (with everyone's permission, of course) to choose unused goods for a thrift store or Goodwill.
A Lifetime of Memories
For a child to become a cheerful, charitable giver, consistency and commitment are key. Try different volunteer efforts, and experiment until you find a good fit for his skills and interests. When you see him enjoying the fruit of his efforts, encourage him to continue. He'll experience the long-term benefits of involvement and learn firsthand that positive change in people, places, and policies takes time, persistence, and passion.
Based on my own experience with my now-adult sons, I can affirm that developing the good habit of charitable giving will become central to your best family memories and celebrations.