4 ways to foster the joy of giving in children

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At this present-focused time of year, (especially in my house with two holidays and a birthday within the next week!) it’s easy for parents to feel like their kids are becoming little gimme gimme gimme monsters. First of all, let me just say, please don’t feel like your kids are spoiled. It’s completely normal for them to feel that way. This can be a really stressful time of year, even for kids, because there is so much stuff going on that’s out of the normal routine. Even when all the stuff is good and fun and joyous, it’s still taking a toll on their ability to self-regulate.

That said, so much of our holiday celebrations focus on adults making a magical experience for the kids, that often kids miss out on the joy of making others happy. It can be difficult to engage kids under six in the idea of giving or donating. Watching a parent make donations or give presents is a wonderful first step, but passing some of the responsibility into the kids’ hands can be a really wonderful experience.

1) Start with things the child will not have much attachment to – money or food. Having a kid pick out some food at a store (or even out of your pantry) and donate it to a food drive is an easy way to start. This can be a great starting point for conversations about poverty, hunger, helping others, and being grateful for what we have. Of course most food drives can derive way more benefit from financial donations than food donations, so if you’re able to, remember to also write a check. But the selecting and giving of food is a great, concrete way for kids to begin engaging in giving back to their community. (And it’s unlikely that it will be difficult for them to part with that bag of quinoa or jar of peanut butter.)

2) If your child has money of their own, you can encourage them to reserve some in a separate vessel for giving to charity. We just started doing this a few weeks ago, and now my almost 4 year old runs around the house looking for change to put in her tzedakah box. When the money has accumulated somewhat, you can have the child decide what kind of cause they want to give their money to, and then help them select an organization that focuses on that issue.

3) Have them buy gifts for family members. I don’t want to spend $35 on some weird thing my kids pick out, but I do want them to feel the excitement of choosing and giving a present, so I usually take them shopping at the thrift store. They have actually found some amazing presents for like $1.50, which is all the better because then they can experience paying for it with their own saved up piggy bank money. But it’s still a great experience for them even if you are footing the bill.

4) Participate in a toy drive by taking your child shopping and having them select a toy to give to a needy child. This is probably the most advanced level of giving for a child, because it’s something they will be really attracted to, and they don’t have the excitement of knowing the person they’re giving to or getting to see them open the present. The first year we did this it was very hard for my kids to select a gift without wanting to also get one for themselves. But I just kept telling them it was a day to buy presents for others, not for ourselves. I’m not sure if it’s because the message sunk in or just that the kids are just more mature this year (or I just had a lucky day), but last week they each selected two toys to donate, with nary a peep about anything for themselves.

If you are someone who worries about the onslaught of holiday presents making your child into an ungrateful, spoiled little person, take heart. I worry about that too. But last week I saw my six year-old empty all his tooth fairy money, untouched since he began receiving it 2 years ago, out of his bank and bring it to his school’s book fair to buy a book he had been eyeing for his sister’s birthday present.

I think we’re doing all right.