Like a lot of kids, my sons have Martin Luther King Jr. Day off from school. It used to be a three-day weekend spent sledding in my parents' backyard in Dutchess County, New York. But when my older son, Conrad, entered kindergarten, MLK Day became a day "on"—spent not in class but doing an act of service, the school's own version of Meals on Wheels. Before this, my charitable giving had always been summed up in one act: writing a check. So I have to admit that when the day arrived, I felt a bit nervous. And I worried that Conrad wouldn't grasp the value of what we were doing. Or what if the experience made him sad and I didn't know how to explain it? Or what if he acted indifferent—or worse, whiny?
When we arrived at the apartment of the woman we were taking a meal to, Conrad told me he'd carry the food. We rang the bell and an elderly lady answered the door. She was hunched over in a blue housedress and was smoking. Her brown eyes met Conrad's and without missing a beat, he said, "We made this for you in case you are tired of cooking." She thanked him and asked questions about his school, his grade, what he's learning—all of which he answered as casually as if he were chatting with a relative. She told him she was once a schoolteacher. He asked her if she had kids; she did, but they lived far away. Did she have a pet? No. We lingered for a minute, and I could see him looking at her simple house in which a tray table sat in front of the television set. She thanked us and told Conrad that seeing him reminded her of teaching. "Maybe I can come back next year," said Conrad.
On the drive home, I was proud of him and ashamed of myself. I had been afraid of exposing him to something that made me uncomfortable—not him. I realized that teaching my kids to be charitable isn't about telling them there are people in the world who have less; it's about giving them concrete ways to help others on a regular basis. But beyond this one school event, I didn't know where to start. "It's not always easy to find ways for kids to get a firsthand philanthropic experience, but if you start locally and work through your community, you'll be surprised at how much a child as young as 4 can do," says Laura Wells McKnight, founder of Diary of a Good Girl, a company that encourages families to volunteer. Want your kids to love giving as naturally as they love a game of kickball? Challenge them to this "Giving Workout."
The best way to jump-start your kid's generosity reflex is to focus on something close to her heart, like her birthday. "Children as young as 3 understand the value of birthdays," says Karen Kitchel, president of cheerfulgivers.org, a nonprofit group that delivers birthday gift bags for needy kids to food banks throughout the country. "When you explain to kids that some children don't receive anything on their birthday, you see the lightbulb go on in their mind, and they want to help," she says. When your child's birthday rolls around, talk to her about incorporating a charitable element into her party. There are even ways to take small steps that don't include a child having to donate any of her own favorite toys. Wells McKnight, for instance, included charitable gift cards from Greater Horizons, a nonprofit foundation, in the invitations to her daughter Ann's fourth birthday and asked guests to log on to a computer with their parents and donate the gift card before coming to the party. In the midst of the cake and games, Wells McKnight gathered everyone around to share how they had donated their gift-card funds. "We kept the terms simple by asking the kids, 'Did you give to animals or kids or the environment?' Even though they were only 4 years old, they liked talking about what they gave, and they felt proud for helping."