Teaching kids to give, not just get

Giving to those in need helps kids become caring, upstanding citizens—and to appreciate the true spirit of the holidays.

Getting my 6-year-old to practice his handwriting was a real challenge until the holidays rolled around—or rather, early November rolled around—weeks before I was ready to even think about shopping. His list for Santa Claus covered every scrap of paper he could find and included requests for everything from another dog and a chicken (“it has to be a girl chicken”) to a bow and arrows and a sword.

The only small glimmer of encouragement I felt is that he seemed equally enthusiastic about giving: anything to do with presents made him happy, including wrapping up his toys and art pieces to give to my husband, his big brother and me.

Yet, his obsession was still focused on material gifts, or the fun of unwrapping surprises, more than giving in the deeper sense of the word. So we decided it was time to foster the spirit of charitable giving and to talk to our kids about helping people in need.

I started by gathering a list of ideas—here are some you might try:

  1. See if you can help serve a meal, sing some carols or bring holiday cheer to a nearby nursing home, with your children or even their class. Or make some cookies and spend some time visiting an elderly neighbor.
  2. Create a charity jar and ask your children to share some of their allowance each time it’s distributed. Involve them in the choice of how to spend it at the holidays, or any time of year. By looking up charities and causes on the Internet together, you can nurture your child’s awareness and keep them excited about pitching in.
  3. Donate food. Go shopping and build food baskets with everything a family might need for a holiday dinner, a full day of meals or more. Involve your children in thinking about what to include, or go volunteer at local food pantry or soup kitchen with your church, school or synagogue.
  4. Sponsor a child. You can make lasting change in a child’s life by providing food, medical care and education – often for less than $1 a day. Organizations like savethechildren.org let you exchange letters and emails with the child you sponsor, creating a meaningful connection and nurturing cultural awareness as well as a spirit of giving in your child.
  5. Help a neighbor by shoveling their walkway, raking leaves or taking care of their pets. Simple acts of caring are more immediate for young children, who may not understand the “realness” of people they’ve never met.

Last week we started the conversation, asking our kids, “Who do you think might need a little extra help over the holidays? What do you think we could do to pitch in?” We wrote down everyone’s ideas, including the ones above.

For now, our charity jar is growing, and we’re not entirely sure how we’ll spend it yet. But mixed in with the toy catalogs my kids are perusing are ones from organizations like World Wildlife Foundation and Heifer International, and it’s wonderful to see the excitement on their faces about what they can give, not just get.