We all want our children to become upstanding, kind humans. That includes everything from teaching them kindness in sharing toys on the playground to helping them become generous adults who give to causes they care about.
That’s why we spoke to experts at leading charities for insights and tips on how to get children involved in charitable efforts, no matter your family’s income and no matter their age.
Here’s what they told us.
Rolling over, taking that first step and . . . giving to charity? “Charity is a learned behavior,” says Aaron Hanson, Director of Development at Shriners for Children Medical Center. “The developmental milestone of putting others before oneself is significant and can be a predictor of greater generosity, positivity, perseverance and altruism later in life.”
So shift your mindset and think of nurturing generosity along with all those other skills.
Charity comes with built-in positive reinforcement: that sparkly feeling you get from doing something kind. As Hayley Cordaro of Boy Scouts of America points out, studies have shown that giving promotes happiness, even in young children.
Encourage this feeling in your child. “The positive reinforcement a child receives when giving is an integral factor in the cognitive-behavioral connection that children need to healthy, caring adult,” says Hanson.
Next time your child does something kind for someone else, ask him to describe how he feels. Likewise, you can explain how you feel when you do something nice for others.
“We give tours to people who are curious about what we do,” says Hanson. “It is an educational opportunity for all ages.” Most charities will be glad to arrange a visit for donors or potential donors. You don’t have to be a big-money donor, either.
“No matter what, if any donors happen to be traveling in the 80+ countries where we work, we open our doors,” says Troy Reinhart, SVP of Development at Smile Train. “Many times, even smaller donors will reach out and say, ‘I’m gonna be in India’ so we’ll help them plan a visit. That obviously doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s a great way to turn a vacation into a learning moment.”
“Kids will really remember,” he says, “you’d be surprised.”
Even if you can’t visit in person, make a cause visual so it’s easier to comprehend the impact. For example, Reinhart says, cleft palate is very visual because even young children can understand before/after photos. “That’s not as easy with other causes out there,” he says, “like, what’s cancer research? But if anyone in your family has had cancer you could explain that this research could help that person.”
Your charity might also have visual resources of its own. “Years ago, we won an Oscar for a short film called Smile Pinki,” Reinhart says. “My aunt teaches in New England so on snow days she’ll put that film on and it affects many of the students.”
Think about personal attributes that comprise a “charity skill set,” like generosity and empathy. Hanson suggests engaging toddlers with activities that model generous behavior (like “one for you, one for me”).
Dana Gold, Senior Manager of National Events & Brand Campaigns for Youth at Make-A-Wish® America, says, that the 3-5 year old age range is a great time to make lessons more concrete: “It’s at this age that kids begin to feel empathy, which is key when it comes to understanding the importance of charitable giving.”
Teens, meanwhile, “respond best to experiences that are peer-group based, like group volunteering,” Hanson says.
“We have a young donor who comes from very modest means, but her charity skill set is highly developed,” says Hanson. “She exhibits the generosity, empathy and kindness of an altruistic adult.”
This young donor sells candy bars to raise funds for charity. When she’s done, “she and her father deliver the money to us in person. The family does not own a car so they take three buses and a Metro train to get to us in Pasadena,” he says. After traveling for three hours, this young donor “hands us her gift, says thank you and departs with her father for another three-hour trip home. She is truly remarkable girl!”
“One way to encourage young people to give their time and money is to show them how it’s done,” says Hanson.
Growing up, Emily Yost’s mother would take her along when she donated blood, which she did a couple of times every year. Yost, now Development Manager for the League of Women Voters, says, “It was important to her that I see this process. Her mother died of leukemia when I was only 11 months old and her life depended on blood donations from the Red Cross.”
These visits made an impact: Yost continued to give blood as a young adult and was even featured on the news when she and a friend dressed up as blood drops to promote a local blood drive.
According to Cordaro, the Boy Scouts promotes the “three T’s” (time, talent and treasure). “Youth generally have more of the first two, so we focus on those. In fact, an Eagle Scout project cannot be about just raising money and giving a financial contribution,” she says. “It has to be about personal contribution of time and leadership to that endeavor.”
When helping your child figure out where to spend his time, Cordaro recommends asking:
What are the needs in the community?
Which of those needs feels greatest to you?
What do you need to do to make that impact?
How will you fund the endeavor, if you need money to make it happen?
To give money, you need money to give, says Cordaro. “Not all kids have access to earning money or have their own.”
If your child does get an allowance or earn any income, try encouraging her to set aside a portion for charity. “I think kids should be encouraged to donate some form of money to a cause that is important to them, starting around age 10,” says Gold. “This could be as simple as donating 5 to 10 percent of their allowance, or choosing to ‘donate’ a birthday or holiday by raising money instead of receiving presents.”
Teens can get involved by participating in parents’ financial decisions, Yost says. Teens can also do their own research into which nonprofits they want to support, she suggests. (Want to see how cute and painless it can be to teach kids about money? Check out this video of our favorite 4-year-old telling us what we should know.)
Most kids don’t have a flush bank account from which to make sizable donations, but they can still make a meaningful difference. So it’s important when talking to your child that you acknowledge his very real ability to create a positive impact.
“A boy who celebrated his sixth birthday decided that rather than asking for birthday presents, he would ask his family and friends for donations to our medical center,” says Hanson. “After his birthday, he presented us with a check for $1,400.” The medical center held a check presentation with staff and gave him a large teddy bear. “A few days later, his mother told us he had already started making plans for his next ‘giving’ birthday!”
While generosity often starts at home, no one expects you to become an expert in philanthropy overnight. See if your charity of choice offers any educational materials. For example, Reinhart says, Smile Train offers educational programs to get even young children involved. “We work with teachers and local communities, and have lesson plans available on our website.”
Reinhart recalls one young donor who raised over $100,000 for Smile Train at the age of 11 or 12—almost entirely because of her emotional tie to the cause. “Ella was born with cleft. She saw an ad in a magazine and said, ‘Mommy, didn’t I used to look like that?’ She understood that this person was like her,” he says. “Her parents explained, ‘Yeah, you were able to have surgery but this kid unfortunately hasn’t been able to yet.’”
Ella started a lemonade stand, which raised an unbelievable amount of money for charity. In addition to raising funds, she also learned all the skills associated with running a business, Reinhart says.
To help build that emotional connection, Cordaro suggests speaking with your child about why you give. You might explain how you think your charitable contributions impact others, how you give your time and why.
“According to research,” Cordaro says, “adolescents who kept a gratitude journal donated 60 percent more of their earnings to charity compared to those who did not.” To avoid a gratitude journal feel like an assignment (“do this!”), you might get together as a family every week and discuss what all of you are grateful for.
Hanson encourages parents not to push their kids to give more time or money than they want to. “Today’s philanthropic landscape is clouded with transactional relationships—I give you this, you give me that—that are passed-off as charity,” he says. “The charitable motive should be true and voluntary, not coerced or required.”
At the end of the day, it’s nice to say, “Maybe my kid will change the world one day.” And then you think: How can I help my child become someone who really might do just that?
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
This article is meant to provide general information and not to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
Fabric isn’t a law firm and we aren’t licensed to practice law or to provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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