By Lisa Bendall
From the print edition, November 2011
We all want to encourage our kids to be generous, to consider the needs and feelings of others, not only themselves. But that means more than putting a few coins in a charity’s collecting can. It means giving time and energy as well as sharing.
“We’re hard-wired to be generous and kind,” says Linda Kavelin-Popov, a British Columbia-based author of the internationally bestselling Family Virtues Guide (Plume). “Children are born with the potential for these virtues, but to bring them to life they need to have them brought out.” So how do you nurture this giving spirit and make it last a lifetime?
Prepare Them to Share
It’s an early, practically universal lesson in giving: Your child has great toys and gear and her friend wants to try them too. “I believe the child should choose, because generosity should be given freely,” says Kavelin-Popov. Rather than force your kid to share everything, ask her in advance of the playdate what she doesn’t want her pal to touch and put those items away. Then encourage her to share the rest of her stuff by reminding her that it will make her friend feel welcome.
Pick a Family Project
How do we teach our kids to donate time to others when we’re so tightly scheduled ourselves? Try choosing an annual service project that involves the whole family. That way, parents and kids are all on the same page. Carlie Welters’ daughter Ava, now six, devoted a pile of energy to the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s jump-rope campaign at her school last year, raising almost $900. It inspired Welters, who lives in Richmond, B.C., to coordinate the event. “I’d wanted to volunteer for the Foundation but just never got around to it until then,” says Welters.
Show and Tell
Kids shine when they see the fruits of their efforts. My daughter Emily, eight at the time, was crushed when we delivered a bag of her birthday toys to a women’s shelter and were met at a side door; Emily had wanted a look at the children she was helping. But even if your kids are fundraising for an earthquake-devastated region on the other side of the world, you can still show them charity websites or talk about articles or newscasts about the crisis. “The good thing about this electronic world is you can see anything when you go online,” Kavelin-Popov says.
Know When to Stop
Never force or manipulate your child into giving to others. “It’s about inviting them to be part of it,” says Kavelin-Popov. Welters recalls that when a friend’s daughter donated her hair to be made into wigs for children, she asked Ava if she wanted to do it too. And when Ava said no, she dropped it. “My husband and I gave her the opportunity but didn’t push,” says Welters. “We wanted her to make the decision on her own.” It also means your child will learn it’s okay to be assertive and say no sometimes—a valuable life lesson!
Teach the Talk
When your child offers you the first bite of her favourite cookie, grab the teachable moment. “That’s when you say, ‘That was a generous thing to do, honey,’ so you acknowledge and reinforce any act of generosity,” says Kavelin-Popov. When your child’s good deeds are on your radar, it helps her label generosity and identify herself as a generous individual. Lisa King of Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., says she and her husband often talk to their four children about how fortunate they are and how some other families struggle. “We teach our kids that donating clothes that are too small and toys that we don’t play with anymore, is being generous and kind,” King says.
The best part of teaching your child to be big-hearted is that a generous child is more likely to become a happy adult. “Parents’ purpose is to raise children to be their best selves, to actually bring out the virtues that are the source of real joy,” says Kavelin-Popov, adding that “only through service to others can anyone have genuine happiness.”