How to teach kids about giving—at every age

Wealthy Single Mommy offers her parenting insights.

Emma Johnson is a business journalist and founder of

The importance of giving was not something that I learned as a child. I was raised with the sense that we were broke, and there wasn’t much to go around—much less to others outside our house. We didn’t have money to give, and there wasn’t a message of giving time or energy to others, either.

As an adult, I have learned about the real value of giving—whether it is money, time, energy or our talents. By giving, you learn to focus outside yourself, connect with larger efforts and build community.

Finding ways to give forces you to take stock of what you are fortunate to have, which may include:

  • An abundance of money
  • An abundance of time
  • Skills you have mastered
  • Health and energy
  • Emotional bandwidth
  • Relationships and contacts

It’s no wonder why service to others consistently ranks as one of the top human experiences that brings authentic joy to our lives. Of course I want to instill this in my children.

The good news is that giving back can be part of every budget, and every family, and can be expressed to children of every age. Here are the conversations, habits and tools parents (as well as grandparents, friends, teachers, aunts and uncles) can use to teach different developmental stages to donate and create a giving mindset.

Preschool and kindergarten giving and gratitude

Humans of all ages thrive on storytelling, and family histories are especially valuable. Include in your repertoire of family folklore stories about people in your family—biological or found—who benefited from the help of others. Ways to bring these lessons to life include:

  • Explaining how sick loved ones were helped by caring medical facilities and caregivers.
  • Talking about teachers and other adults who supported you as a child when you needed it most.
  • Sharing immigration or family origin stories and discuss times when economic or health hardship was relieved by neighbors or community.

Tying these stories into present day can show how your immediate family can be part of the giving circle.

As early as age 3 or 4, start your kids on an allowance program. I suggest what works at my house: Buy three clear jars labeled “spend,” “save,” and “give.” Allowances and gifts are divvied up between the three. For my kids, ages 8 and 10, 50% of allowance and birthday money goes in the ‘Spend,’ jar, 25% goes in each the save and ‘Give’ jars.

Every month, we collect the money in the ‘Give’ jar, and the kids select a charity of their choice. Find a charity that reflects your kids’ interests. For example, often my kids give to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals—the organization from which we adopted our beloved ginger cat, Gala.

I am a fan of the charity Watsi, which crowdsources funds for healthcare services for people in the developing world. Watsi is great for kids, because each patient is profiled with a photo and short description of their life and condition, which is a wonderful asset in connecting with children. We supported a little boy who needed cleft palate surgery, and for months my son, who was age 5 at the time, asked about him by name.

These early years are the time to start a gratitude practice in your home. Both in formal practice—such as meals or your bedtime routines—or informal discussion, make note of what you are grateful for. This helps your child focus on how abundant their lives are, and how many opportunities there are to support others.  When my kids were this age, we started our bedtime “saywhatyouaregratefulfor” (how my kids said it), which included each of us taking turns listing what we appreciate.

These often include each other, our health, that we live in a safe place, have nice neighbors and schools, and healthy food. When we walk by our local produce market, I marvel aloud: “This is what wealth looks like. We have every single fruit and vegetable a few blocks from our house. This is incredible!” My kids are 8 and 10, and get embarrassed now, but I do it anyway.

Also, seek out opportunities to make conscious decisions whenever possible, and express your reasons behind those to your children. For example, when my kids were 3 and 5 we talked about getting a pet. My daughter, then 5, insisted on a kitten. “I think we should get an adult cat because there are a lot of sad adult cats that need homes,” I said. “I have an idea!” said the ever-precocious Helena. “We can get a sad kitten!” Long story short, I won, and today we continue to support the shelter from which Gala came, via donations.

Grade and middle school community projects

At this age, find a community project that the whole family can all participate in. Try to find a service effort you can be involved with long-term, such as serving at a food pantry, commit to regular cleanup of a local park, or spend a few hours each week or month at a local animal shelter.

Look out for those in your community who need help, but may not be tapped into a formal organization. Here are some ways our family engages our community:

  • We reach out to elderly or unwell neighbors and offer to do yard work, snow removal, or run errands—or simply invite them to dinner or to keep them company. The message to your children: Everyone can serve, and service does not require money.
  • When food-shopping, we pick up extra non-perishable food and household goods and drop them off a local charity, Hour Children, which supports incarcerated mothers and their children, both while they are in jail, as well as transitioning after release.
  • We also started serving at a monthly “community supper” at a nearby church, which is open to anyone, including area homeless shelters.

Continue to have conversations about the conscious decisions you make. Make it a family effort to clean out closets and donate unused goods to local charities. Talk about conscious living, including learning about how daily decisions like recycling, buying local and organic, and making smart spending decisions all make us better citizens. This is all part of the mindset that fosters lifelong giving.

Teens and giving

Continue to require your teens to donate a portion of all the money they earn at part-time jobs, birthday gifts from relatives, and graduations. Further, share with them what you give to charity, and why you chose the organizations. Encourage your kids to support causes they individually believe in (opposed to pressuring them to support your passions).

Encourage (or even require) your teen to launch a meaningful year-long fundraising or service project. This might include a focused effort to raise money for a cause that is important to your son or daughter, and set ambitious goals. Help the teen brainstorm and implement events and community building around the goal, but curb any impulses to take over or make the effort easier.

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