When Anaiya Bhatt turned 1, her parents, Suneet and Priya, knew they wanted to celebrate her birthday, but not drown in gifts. So they told their guests no presents, unless they wanted to bring school supplies for kids at the charter school where Priya taught.
The party came and the family ended up with two carloads full of donations. Their toddler? She didn’t miss a thing. In fact, she got something priceless.
Anaiya, 5, still receives presents. But now, she likes to go online to the site Daymaker.com, a website that facilitates giving to kids in need, to see what her “buddy” wants. Raising children who are generous and thoughtful was important to the New Jersey couple. But how does a parent teach this?
It can be hard for young children to understand charity. Their brains simply don’t work that way. But if you model that behavior, it will come more naturally to your kids.
If you’re kind to the waitstaff, say thank you when you’re given your change at the grocery store, collect cans for the food bank or visit senior citizens who may be lonely, then your children will learn to do the same.
Nicole Darsney works at Charity: Water, an organization that helps get clean water to people around the world. She doesn’t lecture her kids, 4 and 2 years old, about generosity, but she does integrate the idea of generosity into their lives. The family has started a tradition where they put their Christmas tree up, then talk about “our month of giving.” They pack up toys the children agree to give away, and they go shopping together for a toy drive.
Darsney said she hopes that if she shows her daughters how to generous, it’ll become a part of who they are.
Parents can’t just assume their children will become generous people. They have to work at it, as they do with table manners. And it has to be consistent.
People often wait until the holidays to perform acts of generosity, “but this has to be a 365-day affair,” said Michele Borba, author of “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”
“We have to add it to our parenting so they turn out to be generous,” said Borba.
She suggests pointing out the acts of generosity we experience daily, so kids can start to understand how to integrate it in their own lives.
When it’s bedtime, say, “Let’s think about the helpers and the people we are grateful for,” she suggested. With bigger kids, ask them to talk about one person they want to thank from their day.
Borba suggests parents focus on the positive aspects of the world, so children can see that people can make a difference. The news is full of “doom-and-gloom reports,” she says, “but there are always fabulous articles that show empathy and gratitude.” Share those with your children. “They can be inspired, and it will galvanize them.”
Parents also need to teach children that generosity is something that may require sacrifice, said Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common, a project that aims to teach kids to be kind.
“We tend to tell them to be kind because it will make them happy in the end,” he says. But we need to help them understand that they should be generous simply “to be generous.”
“When kids do something uncommonly kind, it’s really important to recognize it,” he said. “If they spend an hour shoveling a neighbor’s car out, that’s real generosity, and we should reward them by noting it.”
One thing children’s television personality Fred Rogers always said is “attitudes are taught, not caught,” said Roberta Schomburg, interim executive director at the Fred Rogers Center. “Children are watching. And when they’re surrounded by a generous atmosphere, they’re more inclined to be generous.”
Talk to children about generosity and giving from a young age and explain that generosity doesn’t have to mean giving things, Schomburg said. Making a picture for someone or singing someone a song can be an act of generosity.
It’s also important to remember that just because they are young doesn’t mean they can’t be generous.
“We see generosity in toddlers, giving half a cookie to their mothers,” she said. “I really do think those interactions start at a very young age.”
Schomburg also cautions parents to be flexible. If something isn’t working, she suggests parents rethink their approach and change their expectations.
“It’s always great to include children in toy drives and giving things away,” she said, “but we need to recognize that it’s hard to separate them from their mementos.”
They may have a connection to that seemingly useless toy that you don’t understand. So don’t force it, she said. Instead, let them choose what they want to give away — if anything. If they’re forced to give more than they want to give, they become stingier later because “they are afraid things will be taken away from them.”
Sometimes it might be best for parents to live generously, then stand back and watch.