Teaching the Gift of Giving to Children

By now kids have made their wish-lists and they've checked them twice, but how do parents teach their children that giving is just as nice?

Philanthropy (search) is a foreign concept for many children particularly during the holidays when saying "I want" becomes as natural as breathing. But this time of year can actually be ideal to instill the giving spirit, according to parenting experts.

"A lot of organizations have needs and a lot of people are going without during the holidays," said Kathy Sauligis, director of Kids Care Clubs (search), which aims to develop the spirit of charity in children.

And there's no place like home to stoke the fires of altruism. "If you begin at home by letting them help out with things, it helps develop that charity muscle," said Sauligis.

Andrea Pass, a mother of two from Fair Lawn, N.J., said her children have developed charitable natures from example.

"My husband and I support charities in the ways that we can so it's the norm for our children," she said. "It's just part of our lifestyle. We've always donated to charity."

In fact, Pass' son Eric started his own charity project that "combines his love for sports with helping others," she said. The 12-year-old launched Caps for Caring, an effort to collect baseball caps for kids with cancer. (For more information, email: sportstothemax@optonline.net.)

But committing to a lengthy volunteer project or donating a fat check isn't necessary, said Sauligis. Simple things can teach children how rewarding giving can be.

Just bringing an older neighbor a plate of cookies or helping shovel his or her driveway can brighten the holiday and show kids their efforts are appreciated, she said. "If children do something and it gives them a good feeling, hopefully they'll want to continue giving throughout the year."

As simple as some ideas may seem, children should be eased into benevolence or the intention can backfire, experts cautioned.

"Remember that they are kids, and kids are naturally selfish," said Josh Lerman, senior editor of Parenting. "Their parents take care of so many of their needs, they don't easily see other peoples needs."

Choosing the right project is important too, said Joshua Coleman, a family psychologist in San Francisco.

"Once kids get into mid-adolescence there's a lot of value in them volunteering in all kinds of situations, but with younger children the parent has to be careful," he said. "You wouldn't want to take a 5-year-old to a clinic where people are dying."

Education about social issues goes hand-in-hand with raising a compassionate child, said Sauligis. Instead of just giving kids cans for the school food drive, talk with them about how many other children are hungry.

"The key trait parents want to build in their child is empathy -- to know what it feels like to be in someone else's shoes," Coleman said.

Lerman recommends taking kids to a toy store to choose a gift for a toy drive (search). "They understand what a toy is and the feeling of not having a toy. It's a valuable experience to go into store and buy something for someone else. It might not make them happy, but it's part of the lesson you are teaching."

Holding a family meeting to discuss what the kids are interested in, whether it's animals or sports, can help churn up charity ideas as well, said Coleman. "Decide if you want to donate money or actually go to a location like a local animal shelter (search) and help."

The Points of Light Foundation  helps people find local volunteer centers.

Parents trying to pass on the gift of giving should also examine their own behavior.

"You encourage greediness at the holidays, giving a boatload of presents, talking about how Santa is coming with a lot of presents and spending every weekend at the mall," said Lerman.

Be a good role model by explaining to children what's pleasurable about giving, said Coleman. "Tell them, 'I had so much fun picking that out for you, I thought about what you were going to look like when you were going to open it up and it made me excited to know you'd feel that way.'"

But don't forget, the holidays are supposed to be fun, and giving and receiving can both be a part of a happy experience.

"You can't expect a child to run up to you and say 'Let's go to the soup kitchen and give out food,'" said Lerman. "Make a real effort to give the holiday a meaning that's two-fold. Yes they are getting gifts but it's also about giving."