Dear Mr. Dad: When I was a kid, I remember learning about the importance of charity and generosity and helping others less fortunate. But it seems to me that kids these days aren’t learning those lessons. Is it possible to discourage selfishness and encourage generosity in my kids?
A: The best thing about the phrase “it’s better to give than to receive” is that it’s actually true—especially for kids.
Because we’re continually doing things for our kids, they’re very comfortable being on the receiving end. We give them food, clothing, and everything else they need. But we’ve all seen what happens when the shoe’s on the other foot. Give them a chance to step outside the receiving role and experience the satisfaction of being the generous one, and they vibrate with excitement. They feel grown up. It empowers them.
Generosity is absolutely addicting. But to really drive the lessons home for kids, you have to really make the experience their own. Suppose your child’s school has a canned food drive for the local food bank. Many well-meaning parents put a few extra cans in the cart during their regular shopping, then hand the cans to the kids to bring to school. It’s a good start, but the kids don’t feel like they’re actually participating in the process. All they’re doing is delivering your purchase to the school.
If you truly want them to feel the addicting “generosity buzz,” get them involved in every step. The school will generally provide a list of acceptable items, and you’ll still have to drive the kids to the sores. But let them take it from there. Let the child decide how much to spend and if at all possible, let her use her own money. The difference between Dad’s $5 and her own $5 is the difference between helping Dad be generous and being generous herself. One is passive; the other is active. Don’t even add your money to hers. Make two separate contributions if you wish.
Let your kids go up and down the aisles and pick out the food themselves—then watch their posture the next morning as they leave the front door for school carrying bags of their own generosity.
Many charities can also provide specifics about exactly who receives donations and the difference that donations make for families in need. That can really help kids to connect their giving to those who benefit.
It’s also important to detach generosity from external rewards. Neither schools nor parents should offer incentives for generosity, or that incentive becomes the goal. And that feeling of genuine generosity is almost completely lost in the process. The same goes for gift giving. Try not to buy gifts for your children to give to others. Involve them in the thoughtful selection or making their own gifts for friends and relatives.
Again, when it comes to gifts, we’re not working from scratch. We’ve all seen kids at Christmas or other gift-giving holidays (hey, we’ve all BEEN those kids), and we know that children love opening presents. But they’re generally much more excited when someone else is opening a gift from them—especially if it’s a gift they made, or picked out and paid for themselves.