How to Teach Kids to Give: Do’s and Don’t

We all want our kids to learn to be generous, especially during the holiday season — both for the well-being of others and their own well-being. As Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, professors of psychology, say, “People who spend money on others report greater happiness. The benefits of such prosocial spending emerge among adults around the world, and the warm glow of giving can be detected even in toddlers. … The rewards of prosocial spending are observable in both the brain and the body.”

And professor of psychology S. Catherine Nelson adds, “People who are striving to improve their own happiness may be tempted to treat themselves to a spa day, a shopping trip, or a sumptuous dessert. The results of the current study suggest, however, that when happiness seekers are tempted to treat themselves, they might be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.”

It’s no wonder that the poet Maya Angelou once noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”

Giving well truly frees us from a sense of smallness.

But it can be difficult to know exactly how to best teach kids to give to others. To this end, here are three “dos” and three “don’ts” to consider.

Don’t make giving an “othering” activity. We often (with a well-meaning desire to share) create an atmosphere of pity or hierarchy in the way we give, and we inadvertently stigmatize those who are on the receiving end of gifts or charity.

Do emphasize that we all need help and we all have ways we can offer help to others. Talk more about the “why” behind giving, rather than what and how to give. Create experiences of giving that are close to home, in your own community, so children feel connected to those they give to and feel the impact of their giving.   

Don’t demonstrate giving as a transaction. Giving your child money so they can simply transfer that money to another person or organization does little to instill the truly reciprocal and relational nature of authentic giving. Also, avoid rewarding kids for giving as this often quashes the intrinsic reward of generosity.

Do try asking your child what they feel have to give, and what is their intrinsic area of concern. Children naturally have much to offer: time, attention, words, creativity, empathy, small acts of kindness. Give your child the opportunity to truly participate in the giving. This empowers them to realize that they are nor dependent on you to give, but that they always have something to offer others.

Don’t hide the ways you give from your kids. It might seem more humble to keep your generosity private, but it’s important for your child to see giving in action. Studies show that between the ages of 8-12, children’s attitudes and beliefs about giving are taking shape, and you are their primary model for how this will take shape. 

Do share with your family the ways you give, and emphasize the “why”— the cause you care about— rather than how much you give.

With these tips at hand, your kids will be well on their way to make giving a regular part of life. For more on this, see our member lesson on giving.

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash