Raising Charitable Children

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Parents’ actions will inspire their kids
By Heidi Johnson

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.”

As parents today we have many challenges, especially during the holidays. We all walk the fine line of asking our children what they want, realizing that they don’t really need anything, and all while trying to explain to them the real meaning of the season. 

When our sons were younger, I wondered if they really understood what we were doing as a family for others. We wanted to raise compassionate and charitable children. However, there didn’t seem to be a set of instructions for raising good, kind and empathetic humans. 

While my three adult sons are far from the poster children for philanthropy, they have each found their own gifts and ways they can use them to support causes they care about. The process has been slow and a journey that has evolved over time. As their interests changed, so did their philanthropy. 

Our oldest son had a passion for serving inner-city children. His younger brother, who played high school football, used his talent to score points and funds for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. That changed in college when he became involved with Movember and men’s health issues through his fraternity. 

The youngest of the three is involved with the nonprofit Once Upon a Room, which orchestrates hospital room makeovers for very sick young patients. Now, he has helped bring a new chapter of the nonprofit to his college town of Fort Worth. None of this happened overnight; it began early and slowly.

Each year at Thanksgiving, we sit down as a family and decide what to do over the holiday season to help others. We have sent monthly care packages to a soldier for a year, provided gifts for families that could not have Christmas, we have wrapped gifts at local Children’s Hospitals and fed the homeless, to name a few. We would all put our ideas onto a sheet and express why it was important. Next, we would vote on which nonprofit or cause we wanted to support. Some years we simply had to take turns because agreement wasn’t always met.

Where to begin

There is no simple answer to this question, and raising charitable children is an ongoing process. With 1.5 million charitable organizations in the United States alone, where do you begin to find service opportunities for young children or even teenagers?

Families now have great online resources such as the nonprofit Project Giving Kids, which cultivates volunteer opportunities for young children and families. 

VolunteerMatch.org is another smart way to find local opportunities in your community to volunteer — among a host of others. I recently read an article that said role-modeling philanthropy is simply not enough. The article referenced a study from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University that said, “The research showed that talking to children about giving increased by 20% the likelihood that children would give.”

Here are a few tips to remember as we approach the season of giving:

1. Start young: The earlier the better. For little ones (4 or 5), keep it simple, perhaps canned food for a local shelter or blankets, something that they understand.

2. Be age appropriate. Don’t overwhelm young children with world hunger but rather something relatable to them, perhaps something local in your community.

3. Engage your children in the process, especially the older they get. Find out what they care about. Perhaps they love animals and want to support a local shelter. Have them use their passion to make a difference. Catch them where they are, and meet them there. Your children’s service choices will evolve as they do, so be flexible.

4. Research together and suggest a few choices. Utilize online resources together to come up with a few age-appropriate ideas that resonate; ultimately it is the kid’s vote that decides.

5. Be intentional with your own giving. Teach by example. Discuss what causes you care about. Let your children hear and see your volunteer efforts or participate in them if possible.

6. Make giving habitual by being consistent. Whether it’s part of your allowance structure, a holiday tradition or something you do at birthdays, be consistent. Establish giving as a tradition and habit. It’s no different from any sport; the more you participate, the easier and more fun it becomes. Ultimately it becomes a part of who they are.

7. Emphasize the joy and the experience of giving, rather than money. Philanthropy is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. Giving is so much more fun than receiving. Make it a joyful experience for your family and something you share in together. Perhaps start with entering a 5K walk or charity run or volunteering together.

Benefits of raising charitable children

1. Opens children’s eyes to the fact that others are not as fortunate as they are.

2. Develops empathetic thinking.

3. Fosters an appreciation for what they have.

4. Enhances self-esteem.

5. Correlates to improved performance in school.

Like everything we do with raising our children, it takes time, patience, consistency and love. Chances are you already do most of these things and don’t even realize it and your children do, too. This holiday season, enjoy the process of giving in whatever way you decide to participate. You and your children will experience the real joy of the holidays together.

Heidi Johnson is a nonprofit founder who has spent two decades in the nonprofit space. She is the founder of the Charity Matters Blog and Podcast, and her work has been published in Medium, Thrive Global and Conscious Magazine. She resides in Pasadena with her husband, Ron, and is the proud mother of three charitable sons.

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