Volunteering boosts kids' self-esteem and teaches them to be grateful. Here's how one family learned to start flexing their charity muscles.
Mom and son collecting cans
Credit: Lucy Schaeffer

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 Warm-Up

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."

Kid on bed with money
Credit: Lucy Schaeffer

More of the Right Moves

The Core Workout

Getting in giving shape is just like ab work—you need to target the problem areas, push yourself, and do it regularly. And if you can, grab a friend to make it more fun. "Zero in on trouble spots by asking the organization what it needs most," says Anne Mernin, director of outreach at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey. For example, you might assume that a homeless shelter needs blankets when what it really needs is toothpaste. (Many food pantries and shelters list what they're looking for right on their website.) The process of finding out needs can be a learning experience in itself. This was the case with Claire St. Peter and Ann Barker, both age 9, in Kansas City, Kansas. While visiting the Ronald McDonald house, they found out the house needed new bedspreads. The girls enlisted two more friends to host a Breakfast for Bedspreads fund-raiser at a private home. Their hard work paid off: A week after the breakfast, the girls delivered a thick envelope to the Ronald McDonald House; in it was enough money to buy 30 new comforters.

For a child, learning of a real need and then fulfilling it teaches him that even small acts are powerful. "It moves the giving away from the child's experience and focuses instead on the person or group being served, which is a more reflective and rooted experience for children," says Mernin.

The Feel-Good Stretch

The work Conrad did on MLK Day was important, but it was only one day out of the whole year. In order for my kids to understand the power of giving back, we need to do little things to keep limber every day. It started at mealtime with all of us saying what we are grateful for. In one study, researchers at Hofstra University found that children who were taught to recognize why they were grateful felt happier and more thankful. When we feel happy, we are more likely to be able to give. "Kids respond when you frame the giving by saying you are grateful for what you have and happy to share it. What doesn't work is saying to a child, either directly or simply through your tone, that they are lucky to have what they have and should give to make up for their good fortune," says Wells McKnight. Guilting kids into giving makes that person feel bad, and we naturally avoid things that don't feel good. Frame giving in a positive way so your kids will be excited about spur-of-the-moment ideas.

My younger son, Dashiell, recently started getting an allowance. He also happens to be going through an intense Army phase. We talked to him about breaking his allowance into spending, saving, and sharing portions, and suggested that he use his sharing fund to help soldiers and their families, something he couldn't even fathom he could do. Now, each month, he donates $5 to operationhomefront.net, a website that lists military families' urgent needs. The families' requests range from the small but important, such as helping a soldier buy glasses for his daughter, to the tragic, like helping relatives buy plane tickets to attend funeral services. Dashiell's contribution earns him recognition: His name will be printed in Operation Homefront's annual report and he will be listed on the website as a "Homefront Hero." Seeing his name in print and online is teaching him that money isn't just for Pok?mon cards; it can be used to help others. He receives a monthly receipt for his donation. The first time it arrived in the mail, he was delighted to find an envelope in our mail with a red-white-and-blue logo. I explained that it was a piece of paper to help him keep track of his giving. He looked at it and said, "Okay, so I really want to start collecting these!"

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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