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An early start to a giving heart


When Elise Zwicky’s three children were 10, 13, and 14, they organized a ragtag carnival in the backyard of their Pekin, Illinois, home and invited their neighbors and friends to join the fun.  

They charged admission, sold snacks, and raised a couple hundred dollars, which they donated to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, a nonprofit that advocates for patients who suffer from the chronic heart and lung condition. Zwicky was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension when Sean, her youngest, was 4 years old. The fundraising carnival was his idea.

Philanthropy, experts say, can be a powerful tool for children to gain a sense of agency and hope in the face of challenging circumstances.   

  1. 9%

    Increase in giving among adult children if their parents are charitable

  2. 20%

    Increase in giving when parents talk about their donations with their children

  3. 83%

    Of girls whose parents are charitable make their own donations

“It helps kids feel like, ‘I’m a doer,’” says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. “‘The world is hard and there are big problems, but I can be a problem-solver.’”

Practicing philanthropy also plants seeds for skills that children will use well into their adult years.

“It teaches them problem-solving, financial literacy, compassion, a sense of community,” says Traci Baxley, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and author of Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World. “To know that their act of kindness can have ripple effects in the world can empower kids to do more.”  

Parents can start cultivating their child’s inner philanthropist by modeling frequent generosity.

“And not just with things,” Baxley says, “but with their time, attention, and unconditional love — with extended family and the community. Just like everything else that we teach children — getting dressed, tying their shoes, reading — children need to see it demonstrated and practiced over and over until it becomes automatic.” One-time philanthropic acts, like making a donation or volunteering one shift during the holidays, she says, “won’t give you the results that you’re looking for.” 

When her own children were younger, Baxley and her husband gave them three jars labeled “save,” “spend,” and “give” for money they received through allowance or gifts. There are also debit cards designed for young people that offer the option to automatically donate a portion of the child’s money to a charity of their choosing.

The choosing, Hurley said, is an important step in helping kids feel like philanthropists, rather than simply rule-followers. “Carve out the time to learn together about organizations and how kids want to help,” Hurley says. “When we say, ‘You have to do this,’ that’s not intrinsic motivation. That’s a mandate.”

Those conversations can be a window into your child’s passions, hopes, and fears, and can also be an opportunity to get kids thinking about larger social issues. 

“Equity and injustices are topics that even young children are capable of comprehending when discussed in an age-appropriate way,” Baxley says. “Teaching our children to have a great work ethic is extremely necessary. Still, we also want our children to know that when they have an abundance of something, part of their responsibility to the human village is to share it with others.”

A few things to keep in mind

Ask, don’t assign.
Your kids may have causes on their radar that aren’t on yours, and it’s important to lean into those. “Part of raising well-rounded kids who will grow up and give back is allowing them to explore ways they can help causes that are near and dear to their hearts,” Hurley says.

Turn to books.
Incorporate reading material that introduces kids to problems in need of solutions. “For our bedtime read-aloud, my three youngest sons and I read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park,” Baxley says. “It was the first time that my children understood the privilege of having clean water in their homes. The story of Salva, the main character, moved them to start collecting loose change in a jar that they would eventually send to his foundation, Water for South Sudan.”

Money isn’t everything.
Kids don’t have to have cash in order to help their community. “If your child is passionate about inclusivity, ask what they can do on a micro level,” Hurley says. “What kind of club can you start at school that makes people feel included and welcome and understood?”

Reap the benefits.
When you establish giving as part of your core values, Baxley says, unsolicited acts of giving may show up in your home. “When one of my sons had a special lunch at school that required him to have the exact change, I watched his siblings rummaging through their personal money stash, trying to come up with dollar bills to support their brother,” she says. “When the habit is automatic, you don’t have to explain why giving is right. They just do it.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

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