Charity is more than the act of giving to others, according to Carole Weisman, author of Raising Charitable Children. It's also a way for children to feel empowered in a world where bad things sometimes happen, like Hurricane Katrina. "Children get enormous peace of mind when they're able to do something [to help]," says Weisman. "Teaching your child to be charitable means he will grow up thinking of others." With the holiday season coming up, we thought it was a great time to speak with Weisman about strategies that can help you raise a giving child, and easy ideas for helping the whole family practice the essential values of generosity and compassion.
Parent & Child: Why is it important to raise a charitable child?
Dr. Weisman: Because we're all dependent on each other. It's that simple. Children need to be taught to think of someone other than themselves.
P&C: What do children learn from being giving?
Dr. Weisman: When children are able to do something, they're reclaiming their power and are less frightened about [events that occur in the world]. Also, we have a good time and feel good about ourselves when we help others. Don't you think Warren Buffett is having a good time? A 3 year old can make a ham sandwich for the local soup kitchen and get the same joy that Buffett feels when he gives away $34 billion.
P&C: How can parents teach very young children the importance of giving back?
Dr. Weisman: One thing parents can do is to start a family birthday tradition. In my family, we let each of our children choose a charity and made a donation in their name on their birthday. The donation is not in lieu of presents or anything else. It's an add-on. Sometimes it's difficult for a child to choose a charity. To help them, ask questions like, "What have you enjoyed in the last year?" "How would you like to change the world?" Or, "What bothered you in the past year?"
P&C: At what age should I introduce my child to charitable giving?
Dr. Weisman: About age 3. Sometimes, you see empathy begin to develop at 18 months when one toddler is hurt and another child reaches out to try and help. As soon as you see your child has the ability to reach out to someone else, you should involve him in charitable activities.
P&C: What sort of charitable activities do you mean?
Dr. Weisman: One of the things parents can do is include their children in whatever volunteerism or philanthropic efforts they're involved in. It doesn't matter if it's doing a walk for breast cancer awareness, or donating money to a non-profit. It's important that you explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. Even children as young as 3 can understand.
P&C: How does a child's involvement in charitable giving change with age?
Dr. Weisman: It changes drastically. What fascinates me is how sophisticated children are these days with the Internet. A 3 year old can make a cookie and an 8 year old can research which organizations will accept cookies as a donation. Kids are not just for envelope stuffing anymore.
P&C: What if your 3 to 5 year old doesn't want to donate or volunteer his time?
Dr. Weisman: It's important for a young child to experience the power and joy of philanthropy. Young children shouldn't be asked to give up something they really care about. There's a chapter in my book called "Grumbling All the Way," which is about reluctant volunteers. Children don't always like volunteering. Some children would rather play video games than clean up a church basement or work at Habitat for Humanity. Parenting is about sharing as much power as you can by giving children a say in where they volunteer. Ultimately, you're the adult and you can decide that it's a family value to volunteer, whether they like it or not. It's not always a Kumbaya moment.
P&C: How will a parent know when their child has incorporated empathy and responsibility into his life?
Dr. Weisman: A parent knows they are raising a charitable child when the child brings an issue or cause to the family as soon as they see an injustice. When your child starts thinking about what he or she (or the family!) can do to correct an injustice, you know you've raised your child to have a social conscience.