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Teaching Giving Instead of Getting

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An interview with Joline Godfrey

We all know preschool-age kids are pretty durned focused on figuring out how to get what they want (which is basically everything in sight!) Aside from tempering the burning desire for more, I also want very much to instill in my son not only a responsibility to give to others, but a desire to do so. I hope he will feel good about giving and include that as part of his sense of self. Joline Godfrey, CEO of Independent Means, Inc., gives us some tips on how to steer our little takers down a path of lifelong giving. — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, Exec VP of TMC

How can we instill an inclination toward philanthropy in our young children?

Kids already want to help. Even after 20 years working with families, I’m touched by just how powerful the impulse to “do good” is in young children. While working with a family recently, I ran an after dinner game we created, to raise awareness in young children about international, national, and local hunger. After just the first pass around the table, the youngest member of the family, a tow-head of about six, bolted up in his chair and said, “People need to know about this! We need to do something!”

The challenge for parents and financial educators is how to follow up on such an impulse, how to channel that energy and compassion. In the case of this family, we followed up the dinner conversation with a trip to the city’s food bank and an exploration of the family’s philanthropic activities. Of course, children can be selfish–it’s not easy for kids to hear that some of their allowance will have to go to charity. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t their money. It’s money you give them to practice and learn financial skills.

At what age can children really understand that there are others less fortunate than they are? That they have a responsibility to help?

As soon as they ask the question–for some kids that as early as five or six, for others it may be eight or nine. Kids are aware that things are not always equal–that Sam has newer toys than he does, that Susan lives in a smaller house than she does. Parents can leverage this into a giving spirit. By asking kids to imagine Thanksgiving without a turkey or Christmas without presents, parents will often find they don’t even need to ask them to drop a can in the food drive bin or donate one of their old toys, kids will ask how they can help.

What’s the best way to talk about those in need without “otherizing”?

This is one of the deepest challenges of teaching kids to be philanthropic. At its core philanthropy is an exercise in imagination, which children are quite good at. We must see in our hearts and in our minds a better world and we must believe that our actions will be a small step towards that world. This starts with imagining what it’s like to be in another’s shoes, to go without clean drinking water or Christmas toys. When we do this kind of imaginative empathy well, the people we help cease being objects or unknowns and start being people like us.

Can you list a few great ways for young children to “give back”?

Start with vocabulary and spelling… Get magnetic letter boards (or better yet turn chocolate pudding into edible finger paint) and teach them to write “give,” “help,” “share,” and, for that budding spelling bee champion “philanthropy.”

Once kids develop philanthropic language, they understand when they see philanthropy in action. When you write the next check to a cause or non-profit you care about, talk to your kids about why you give. When you get home from an afternoon of volunteer work, show them photos of the community or group you have spent time with. Simply, tell stories that share your values. Better yet, let them join you when it’s appropriate. If you aren’t regularly volunteering, join your community’s annual day of giving as a family or start your own. The pre-organized days often cater to families with specific activities kids can participate in.
For older kids a night at what I call the “Charity Cafe” can do wonders. Ask your child and his or her best friend to invite five or six friends for a night at the Charity Cafe. The idea is to redirect the money kids might normally spend on fast-food into a self-directed philanthropic fund.

Set up the kitchen or living room with five or six big charity posters. Each poster should be a different need (e.g. Animal Charities, Environmental Charities, Health Charities) with different organizations that serve that need (e.g. Humane Society, Cat/Dog Spaying Fund, Pet Adoption Center, etc.) Collect donations from the kids (say, $4 each) and serve something simple (peanut butter and jelly is a favorite), then organize them into teams to decide to whom they’d like to donate. Have them make presentations to each other and vote on where their money will go. The best groups do this regularly, meeting every month, building stronger friendships and a stronger sense of what it means to be a philanthropist.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Yes. I know every family has good intentions to raise philanthropically thoughtful kids. But the families that actually make impact are intentional. They live philanthropic lives, model values of generosity and social impact–and they give their kids opportunities to be philanthropically active. Kids who feel they’re making a difference will be more grounded and more self-confident. In this, philanthropy is the antidote to a mass culture that places too much value on ‘stuff’ and money for image and status.

Joline Godfrey, CEO of Independent Means, Inc, is one of the world’s leading experts on children and money. She is the author of “Raising Financially Fit Kids”, and “No More Frogs to Kiss: 99 Ways to Give Economic Power to Girls”.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”, which helps young children express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool — for you!

*this post was originally published in March 2011

Posted in: Expert Advice