I started discussing charities and donating last holiday season. My son was then three years old. It began at the grocery stores, because they had giving trees or charity trees, or piles of gifts to be given away. He would look at the toys under the tree and I would explain to him what they were for. It was becoming apparent that despite only being three years old, his line of thinking was becoming sophisticated enough to understand more concepts than I thought, and that teaching him to be gracious and charitable is fairly simple, as long as I pay attention to my own language. I’m not trying to create a mini-Me, I want him to grow up and be passionate about something even if it’s not my same passions.
This year was a bit more challenging. I actually did a fairly large Santa drive for three families on my own, it was a last minute thing, and I had tons of gifts and packages in our garage. Some were wrapped and some were not, and in particular when he saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle items (his favorite) it was difficult to explain why he could not have it. Obviously I spend a significant amount of time helping others, and in particular helping others who are not necessarily empowered (or feel empowered) to help themselves. I want my boys to also realize the many gifts that they have, such as an ability to help others–regardless of what social issue speaks to them.
Don’t threaten them with charity
One of my biggest pet peeves about our society is that so often, charitable giving is seen as punishment. Just ask Lindsay Lohan! But seriously, why is “community service” a punishment? Shouldn’t you give back to your community just because it’s the right thing to do, and not under threat of imprisonment? Sure, make criminals pick up trash or clean toilets or something else undesirable, and then let’s call it that–”sentenced to 40 hours of cleaning graffiti off of buildings.”
In some families, this happens daily at the dinner table. “Eat your dinner. There are starving children in the world.” How does that make a kid appreciative of donating to a food bank? Now he associates starving children with my shepherds pie that he loathes. I found myself doing this once, when it came to toys that I was picking up for the umpteenth time. I told him that if I had to pick up these things again, I was going to give them away. Then, I thought about that phrase and how it was setting up donating used toys as a punishment. Now I stress the importance of taking care of the nice things you have, and if you care about not having the dogs find them and chew them, you put them away.
Be visible with your charity work and donations-and take credit for it!
When you are donating, have them present with you or talk about it at the dinner table, or in the car as you’re going to drop off items or mail an envelope. Tell them what you’re doing and why. Let them participate as appropriate-let them put coins in a donation jar at the store or help pick out their own gently used toys to give away. Choose your language–instead of “I’m going to go work at your school for the book sale” use “I’m going to go help out at your school for the book sale.” Using the words help or volunteer instead of work helps them differentiate. Use the words “give” or “donate” instead of “I’m going to drop this off…” Keep your donating and volunteering language present, evident–take credit for what you are doing!
Teach them to be gracious and thankful
I’m not so militant that I don’t let my kids play with gifts until the thank you note is written, which is a suggestion I read online recently. Geez! Talk about a total buzzkill on Christmas morning! But I have always involved them in the thank you note writing for every occasion, even if it meant they were in a baby swing next to me while I did it. Now, he is able to write his name so he does. When he could just write a “B” that’s how he signed his cards.
Remember that little kids have no concept or frame of reference around value of things. So if your 4-year-old asks for several gifts that are $300 each, don’t fret over raising a spoiled brat. He just has no idea how much things cost vs. how much we earn–he just knows that he sees something that he likes and wants. Talk to them about what is an extra special gift, and why, and how to earn extra special gifts and so on.
Age appropriate discussions
Lately B has been very aware of those sad animal commercials on tv soliciting donations and the Alyssa Milano ones for UNICEF. Honestly, sometimes I just change the channel because he is so young. But he has caught glimpses of it and has asked questions. I answer his questions in an age appropriate manner and so far have avoided fear (such as him getting sick like the children they show).
Set the tone and be positive
Everyone in our society has something to offer. Sure, if it’s a sunny Saturday, I can think of 10 things I’d rather do instead of a heavy work session at my kid’s school or working the concession stand at a ball game. But everyone has to pitch in, so we might as well enjoy it. Even if you’re dreading it, don’t let your kids know. Use “It’s our turn to go clean the church pews but if we work hard, we’ll get it done quickly” instead of “blargh……..we HAVE TO go clean the church pews.” That was admittedly my LEAST favorite thing to do as a kid, even though I didn’t do much cleaning. There were no Leap Pads or similar devices to distract me as a child; I just sat in the church pews bored to tears and longing to run around (which of course we weren’t allowed to do).
Remember, children are learning all the time, so what are you teaching?