12/04/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Teaching Children to Be Charitable

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The bell ringers with their red kettles are out in full force. My mailbox is filling with solicitations from charitable organizations. 'Tis the season. In fact, about half of all charitable contributions occur in the month of December.

Sure, some of us may be motivated in part by the tax deduction. But most of us would say that the intrinsic rewards of giving are the most powerful motivators. A special kind of satisfaction comes from thinking of others. We feel an enriched sense of purpose. Brain scans indicate that simply thinking about helping others by either giving or through face-to-face volunteering makes people happier. Other studies suggest that givers feel less stress and enjoy overall better health.

Clearly, acting charitably is a win-win. So, why do so many of us wait until year-end to think about it? Why don't we make it more of a way of living than a holiday custom or ritual? And how do we begin to instill this idea in our children?

Luckily, it's one of the easier lessons to impart to kids, because it doesn't go against their grain. Kids have a natural impulse to help. The sooner you begin, the easier it is. Even preschoolers can begin to understand the basic concept of sharing what we have with others in need.

The question of how much children should give is less important than the question of where they might give, so take time to really explore this question with them. Start by asking what they care about most. They might surprise you with their answers.

Kids, like adults, often find that a particular social issue or cause resonates with them. Is your child an animal lover? He may want to donate to the local animal shelter wildlife rescue organization. A loved one with cancer may move a child toward contributing to cancer research. A young dancer or artist may be highly motivated to give to an arts center; an avid reader to the local library. Children often feel especially drawn to food pantries and homeless shelters; they can easily imagine what it might be like to be hungry or sleep on the street. It doesn't actually matter what they choose, as long as the choice is theirs. When children have a cause that naturally resonates with them, they are well on the path to becoming habitual givers.

Some children may find the idea of giving money to help people a little too abstract. They may need to see a more direct connection from giving to helping. Instead of donating to the volunteer fire department, these kids might rather bake cookies for the firefighters -- or bake and sell the cookies, and donate their proceeds. Almost all of the organizations that will gratefully receive their money (no matter how small the sum) will also be grateful for their time and effort.

You might also find ways to volunteer as a family. You'll likely find that this creates opportunities for even deeper lessons and richer family conversations. When my young daughter and I volunteered to serve at a community luncheon, one of the guests complained loudly and impolitely about overcooked pasta and watery sauce. "But it's free, and we volunteered to do this," my daughter said in disbelief. "Why isn't he thankful?" The experience was a springboard to a great discussion about the many reasons to volunteer, which don't necessarily include appreciation or recognition from others.

This time of year, even the kindest children are susceptible to a bad case of the "gimmes." One good way to manage their expectations is to help them find ways to give back. Giving will foster gratitude for what they already have, boost their self-esteem and overall well-being, and help them develop empathy. And if they see you, too, looking for ways to give both your time and treasure (throughout the year), the lesson will really stick.