Kids are never too young to learn the concept of charity. That’s why I’m starting now.

A few weeks ago, I was shopping with my toddler when she loudly declared that she loves giraffes. A mother and her 8-year-old overheard and approached us. The mom said her daughter had a toy giraffe at home and since she was learning the concept of giving, she’d like to give it to my daughter. We exchanged addresses and the following week we got this little stuffed giraffe in the mail. My kid instantly fell in love, named it “Carson,” and sleeps with it every night.

That little unexpected act of giving planted the seed for us to start thinking about what toys we owned that could possibly have another life in another home. Now we have a “one in, one out” rule. If we bring home a new puzzle, my toddler has to give an old one away, and she’s pretty good at this, despite how young she is. Either directly, the way the generous mother and daughter did with her giraffe, or through charities, there are so many ways to give.

I know the concept and purpose of charity can be somewhat obtuse for young kids, and even for some of us non-kids, but I like to think of it this way: If someone in our family needs something, what do we do? We help. I think of all people as my kids. How would I want them to be treated? I usually ask myself that question and the answer guides my conduct. I think everyone has a great internal kindness barometer, if you can awaken it. I’ve had plenty of great examples of kindness in my life. The way I see it, we are all on Team Human, and I tell my kids that the world is just our extended family.

I think teaching children this concept is important for two reasons. First, it helps them to look past boundaries. I don’t want my kids to be restricted by country lines, religious beliefs, or languages. I want them to see the whole of mankind: It makes everything less scary, more accessible. And if they see the world as boundless, then their achievements will follow suit.

Kristen Bell Charity
Credit: Ari Michelson

Second, charity teaches our kids that what we have is not who we are. It’s not about who has a house with a pool, the most toys, or the coolest clothes. Feeling attached to possessions can cause a child to identify and value his or her self-worth based on materialism. A friend of mine once said if you can’t give stuff away, then you’re the end of the chain. Ask yourself: Is there anyone who needs this more than I do right now? If the answer is no, great! Keep your stuff. However, chances are there’s someone right under you on that chain, so don’t cut her off. I’m not saying this is easy. I, too, hoard some belongings. (You never know when you’re going to need that string of pineapple-shaped patio lights!) But I don’t want my kids to be afraid to part with their things, as they’re just that—things. My wish is that my kids are able to discern between what’s disposable in life and what’s not. Material items can go, but acts of kindness, love, and giving must stay. Those are the true things that make us who we are.

I try to lead by example. I work with a local nonprofit in Los Angeles called Alliance of Moms, which advocates for young mothers living in foster care. Seventy-five percent of female foster children in California will be pregnant before age 21. Alliance of Moms seeks to help these young moms thrive in their new role of motherhood and help lift the next generation to reach greater opportunities. We have events where moms can drop their kids at our day care while they spend time learning how to cook healthy meals on a smart budget and how to sleep-train their child; they can partake in many other educational opportunities as well. I love it, mostly because I get to spend time in the kid room, holding and smelling babies all day. (That may sound a little weird, but we all know babies smell like pure heaven.)

I also love working with Baby 2 Baby, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that raises funds to provide low-income families with diapers, clothing, and all the basic things children need. One out of every three American moms has had to choose between giving her child diapers or food, a sentence that pains me even to write. Baby 2 Baby works with homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, and domestic-violence shelters to help provide for every baby they can.

To me, charity doesn’t mean giving things away into a void. It means sharing with a purpose. When I bring my girls along with me to volunteer and try to teach them to share toys with each other, I want them to learn that it’s not just about sharing stuff, it’s the sharing of experiences.

One day we will send Carson the Giraffe to go live with another child. And in the meantime, we’ll continue to help everyone we can, even people we don’t know. It’s our only way to ensure that Team Human wins the race.

Parents Magazine