Teaching Kids About Giving: The Why, The How, and The How Soon
Most parents want to raise their children to become kind adults, empathize with those less fortunate, and do something about it.
One of the better ways to encourage that is to teach them about charitable giving from an early age. This includes everything from sharing toys at playtime, to inviting kids to join in recess games, to setting aside some of their money to donate to charities.
Here’s what you need to know to get started today.
Teaching our kids to give charitably raises them into better human beings. We also know some of the specific traits this builds in children, which they can use as adults and while they grow.
When kids give, they think about what their gifts do for those they help. If they invite a lonely classmate to join in a game, they understand loneliness. If they give some of their allowance to a food bank, they think about how hungry they might feel if they didn’t have food.
By making a difference in somebody’s life, children consider what might have happened without their help. This builds empathy and compassion, traits that rely on the proverbial “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
It Encourages Them to Explore Their Interests
If a child is interested in the cultures and languages of Southeast Asia, then giving to a charity based in that region helps them explore that interest in a new way. If they love to read, volunteering at a library lets them dive deeper into the world of books. Whatever your child is fascinated with, there’s a way to give that immerses them more fully in that topic.
On a more functional level, getting involved in those passions early through giving also helps them in their professional life later. It introduces them to the structures and systems of that passion and could even help them find mentors and influencers in the field.
Empathizing with less fortunate people also helps kids appreciate their own lives. Thinking about what hunger feels like inspires gratitude for a full belly. Delivering charitable holiday gifts instills a sense of appreciation for the packages under the tree at home.
Research has found that gratitude strengthens relationships, improves physical and psychological health, reduces aggression, improves self-esteem, and improves sleep quality. That’s not a bad return on a few hours or dollars given to worthy causes.
Now that we’ve seen how powerful it can be to teach our kids charitable giving, let’s look at some methods. Charity isn’t restricted to writing checks or slipping bills into a donation jar, after all.
1. Reinforce Kindness Early and Often
When adults give to charity, we get a dopamine hit that makes us feel good about ourselves and the world for a little while. Kids get that too, but we can reinforce it.
If we praise our children any time we catch them doing something kind for others, we give them that same dopamine hit we get from formal giving. This can be even more powerful if we ask them how they felt about whatever kind of thing they did. They get the neurological benefits and the lesson of deeper thinking about empathy and charity.
Giving money or other support from a distance provides the personal benefits of charity and supports the cause. However, it can be too abstract for younger children to understand and engage with.
Most nonprofit organizations give tours to people who want to know what they do and why. Unless their facility is dangerous in some way, they often love to bring kids in to teach them about their mission. This in-person visit can help children understand how their efforts and donations help people.
3. Make Giving a Budget Line Item
When your kids earn money, consider portioning it into cash to spend, money to save, and money to donate. The exact proportions are up to you, but it’s a tangible way to encourage kids to think about charity early and plan their finances accordingly.
Make a line item in your own budget for supporting causes you find essential. Share this with your kids for a combined lesson in charitable giving and adult money management.
4. Look Into Charity Curriculum
Some charities’ websites offer a surprising number of fairly robust learning tools. These can include everything from online or on-paper games and puzzles to informational pages to advanced white papers about what they do.
These learning opportunities can help kids discover more about their favorite causes while challenging them academically. They can be beneficial when it’s time to write a term paper or make an in-class presentation.
5. Involve Your Child’s Organizations
Most kids are involved in at least one organization or community, such as a church, karate school, scouting troop, gymnastics academy, or classroom. This can be an opportunity for them to practice both giving and leadership.
Talk to the leaders of whatever organization might work best for your child, and develop a way to involve the entire group in a charitable opportunity. Let the little ones lead as much as is reasonable, and watch their empathy, leadership, and confidence grow.
Babies & Toddlers: Teaching Feelings
The abstract concepts of giving to charity are lost on babies, cruisers, and toddlers. Their minds are not equipped to handle object permanence, let alone what happens when you write a check to the local food shelter.
But our littlest children do know feelings. Talk to them about their feelings and about how other people feel. Ask what they think others are feeling, and positively reinforce when they show empathy, caring, and compassion.
Preschool: Showing Responsibility
As kids enter preschool and kindergarten age, they can begin to practice compassion. However, they’re still developing many of the emotional milestones necessary to understand charity and giving. You can talk with them about kindness, helping, and taking responsibility for our world and the people in it.
Demonstrate this by showing how to take that responsibility. Something as small as picking up some trash as you walk your child to school can be a learning opportunity about how they can help.
Support this lesson by praising your kid when you see them take action and responsibility, no matter how small a difference they made. This gives context to the abstract idea of helping others, which prepares them for getting more deeply involved.
Elementary School: Engaging Curiosity
In early elementary grades, kids can understand giving but rarely have money. What money they have usually comes from allowance, birthday gifts, and similar grants they don’t earn. Giving it doesn’t carry the same weight since they don’t fully appreciate what it takes to earn money.
It pays to focus on engaging them in curiosity. Whatever topics they’re interested in, there’s an opportunity for charitable giving. Guide them to learn about those opportunities, why they exist, and how people can help. This introduces the idea and motivates them to get involved. This is the age when site visits and volunteering first become realistic and engaging.
Middle School: Involving Money
By late elementary or early middle school age, children develop the math skills and ability to earn and organize money. This is the age where it’s wise to introduce categorizing money into “spending,” “savings,” and “donating” buckets to make charity a part of their routine.
Boost this lesson by introducing opportunities to earn money beyond simply receiving an allowance. Whether they do this through household chores, returning recyclables, or an entrepreneurial project, they’re old enough to start appreciating how work brings in income and to feel the importance of how that impacts what they donate.
High School: Building on Passions
In high school, charity can include time, money, and leadership. Help your child identify a cause and one or more specific organizations they want to help, and encourage them to lead their peers in support of this passion.
As we mentioned earlier, this helps them engage in something they feel passionate about while also developing soft skills that will help them in adult life. For those who see college as a next step, their efforts here will improve their admissions opportunities. Those going directly into the workforce will kickstart their resumes.
Final Thought: Leading by Example
Of course, the essential way to teach kids kindness is to let them see you acting with empathy and caring about your fellow human beings. As parents, we must remember that kids listen a little, but they watch a lot.
Even if you never talk about what you do, kids who see you involved with giving are far more likely to give their time and money to important causes when they grow up.
Brad Cuttings is a philanthropist who encourages parents to advocate charitable donations to their kids at a young age.