Born to share: helping kids stay generous

By Trust for Public Land
Published April 30, 2015

Born to share: helping kids stay generous

Maddy McCuin was only six years old when she learned that her favorite place to play—a forest on the Connecticut coast—was up for sale.

Developers had envisioned a golf course and hundreds of houses, but Maddy, like others who loved to explore the wooded trails and streams, had other ideas. She cracked her piggybank and asked her family to put her savings of $5.63 toward protecting the land forever.

Inspired by her commitment, other (slightly older!) advocates launched “Maddy’s Match,” inviting donations in multiples of $5.63. Four years of statewide fundraising later, the community is at last celebrating the permanent conservation of “The Preserve—at 1,000 acres, previously the largest unprotected coastal forest between New York and Boston.  

Ron Lieber, finance columnist for The New York Times and the author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, believes that experiences like Maddy’s make a lifelong impression. Children are “hardwired” to be charitable, contends Lieber, citing research indicating generosity begins in infancy.

But nurturing your naturally giving toddler into a civic-minded adult takes care. We asked Lieber what adults can do to encourage the next generation of philanthropists. 

Step 1: Baby’s first budget

“A child who can count and is asking questions about where money comes from and what things cost is ready for an allowance—by first grade at the latest. Divide the money into equal thirds for spending, giving, and saving—in effect, a first budget.” 

Step 2: Practice generosity

At first, let them practice with whatever cause they want to give to. Consider this an experiment: some kids might want to give money to a friend who’s sad or sick. Don’t rein those instincts in—it’s good to be generous in that way. But start talking about other causes that might inspire them—for example, your religious community or a nearby park, museum, or school.”

Step 3: Help them donate in person

“Younger children in particular enjoy presenting their gift themselves. Call up the development office of the local park or other nonprofit, and ask them if they’d mind accepting the donation from your child in person. It makes the kids feel importantplus it’s incredibly cute! Most organization know exactly how to handle this. They take pictures, share the stories with their constituents, and make a big deal out of it. It’s inspiring to everyone.“

Step 4: Give them a say in family giving

“The best way to help kids learn about giving is to literally offer them a seat at the table when the grown-ups make decisions. With our daughter, we put a hundred beans on the table to show her how we divide up the money we donate, making separate piles to represent each organization we give to and explaining why their work is important to us. We then gave her the chance to move a couple of beans to the causes that were especially important to her. 

The way you give reflects what you stand for as a family—so kids should get a say, too. I recommend repeating this exercise every year, giving your kids a few more beans each time. Invite them to challenge your priorities and share their own.”

Step 5: Teach them to give without benefits

“As children get older, they’ll often gravitate toward giving to the zoo or wildlife programs because they love the stuffed toys they get in exchange for giving. That’s all very nice, but eventually they should begin to consider the hardships of others. So after a few years of giving, challenge your kids to donate to causes that help people beyond just themselves. Whether these gifts are to local food banks or homeless shelters or donations to global organizations, the point is to help other people we do not know directly.” 

If you’ve got good advice (or know a young philanthropist who deserves a shout-out!) we’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment—or join us on Facebook.

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