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Dear Family Whisperer: 5 Secrets of Raising Charitable Kids

07/17/2014 10:35 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014
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Dear Family Whisperer.

After reading a recent article in the New York Times, "Learning Young the Gift of Helping Others," I felt like I should be doing more to make my child "charitable." But I can't even get him to part with old toys. How can I teach him to be generous?"

--Worried Mom

I read the same article [click here]! To be sure, not every kid jumps at the chance to have a birthday party with no gifts or to send money earned raking leaves to some village in Africa. And yet, giving seems to be on the upswing according to reporter Paul Sullivan, who wrote the piece. Of those polled by Fidelity Charitable, which manages donor-advised funds, 94% said they "had taught or were teaching their children to give to charity."

Although Sullivan is quick to admit that the sample is "skewed toward charitably inclined," it's no surprise that giving is on the upswing. Parents know -- and researchers confirm -- that generosity benefits the giver as much as the recipient. We want our kids to be good citizens. Also, we're in the midst of a backlash to the ethos of the "priceless child," moving (hopefully) towards the era of the "competent" child. How do we nudge that along?

The short answer: Giving is not something you "teach" children; it's a value you adopt as a family.

Charity begins at home -- as does empathy, generosity, kindness, responsibility, honesty and a host of other relationship-building traits that make life worth living. We learn them -- ideally -- from the people closest to us, our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Here's how to help your kids learn them now:

1. Create a culture of kindness and generosity. Children learn by watching you and by being part of a community-minded family. Share examples of giving at the dinner table; ask the giver how it felt. Look for opportunities throughout the day to be kind or generous -- say, by offering to help a neighbor unload packages. Notice and compliment others' kinds acts ("How nice of Dad to help Mr. Brown with his car." "That was kind of you to show Johnny how his toy works"). Take the kids with you when you drop off old clothes or bring brownies to a senior citizen center. Let them stuff envelopes for a charity mailing. Work together and talk about what the fund does and who it helps.

"My only hope is community service becomes how brushing their teeth is to them. They do it because it's the right thing." -Laurie Moret, organizational psychologist and mother of three girls.

2. Position your kids as participants. Show them how good it feels to be part of something bigger. Instead of assigning chores to build character or encouraging them to do "service" because it will someday look good on a resume, allow them to "run" the family with you because it's their family, too. When you genuinely need children's help (and what parent doesn't?) and you respect them enough to let them participate, they will enjoy helping you and each other. That, in turn, inspires them to help others.

3. Show them that others need help. Expose them to neighborhoods where children might not have many toys or a safe playground. Travel or read books about other cultures. Talk about the news and about the kinds of problems some families face. Don't worry about frightening them. Kids are a lot savvier that we realize -- and it's good for them (and adults) to feel grateful for what they have. As a 10-year-old who visited Kenya with her parents explained to Sullivan, "I saw how some people are not as lucky as we are. I wanted to help."

"What I like to see is parents who are talking to their children in a way that's not about building pity but empathy... It should be, 'Here are some people that I can help' and not 'Look at what I have, poor them." -Jim Coutre, partner at the Philanthropic Initiative

4. Encourage them; but don't take over. Naturally, a 5-year-old needs more adult input and assistance to organize a charity project than a 12-year-old. But once you offer ideas ("I'll bet if you Google 'kids' charity projects,' you could get some good ideas"), step back. Mostly, listen and be supportive. Applaud their passion and generosity.

5. Let them learn from problems and failure. Hitting roadblocks spurs creativity and hones resilience. One 12-year-old and her friends who decided to organize a medical drive hit the wall when they discovered that their plan ("to give essential drugs, like aspirin, to people who couldn't afford them") required a doctor's assistance. So it was back to the drawing board. But think of the "executive skills" -- planning, organization, reasoning, troubleshooting, problem-solving -- she strengthened in the process.

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this topic in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.