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The Worst Mistakes I Made When Encouraging My Kids to Give Back

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Wait… it’s December already? Somehow, the holidays have crept up on me yet again. With Christmas right around the corner, it’s time to think about how to make this a season that’s not just about getting presents, but giving too.

My family is blessed to have a warm house, enough money to order pizza whenever we want, and Legos practically exploding off the shelves. So it’s important to my husband and me that we all (including my three kids, ages 2, 5, and 7) spend time giving back and making the world a better place.

We’ve tried many ways to tap into our kids’ compassion and get them into the habit of regular charitable giving. Some of them have worked… but some have been major failures.

Here are three of my memorable missteps, and what I now know to do differently:

Lesson 1: Don’t equate giving with punishment.

Once upon a time, at the end of a long and tiring day, I told my two oldest kids (then ages 4 and 5) to clean up their 2.5 million Lego bricks or I’d gather them up in a bag and give them away to a kid who’d really appreciate them. The threat worked temporarily and they cleaned up, but it also associated charity with punishment. For months afterward, the words “give away” were met with resistance. That one sentence spoken in frustration resulted in setting my kids’ charitable inclinations two steps back.

Since then, the trash bag continues to be a clean-up motivator for my kids, but it’s with the knowledge that those toys I have to clean up will go into a limbo zone we call “toy time out” until they can be earned back. Now when we discuss sharing gently-used toys with others, it’s not used as a threat. Instead, we focus on the joy that those toys will give other kids, and how it’s an opportunity to share as others have shared with us.

Recently, our neighbor brought over a huge tub of toy cars that his college-age kids had long since outgrown. My two boys were delighted to have the new-to-them toys, and it also was a great opportunity for them to think about how they could bring that same kind of happiness to other kids.

Lesson 2: Don’t forget to follow through!

Last January, in an effort to keep the giving spirit going past the holiday season, we set up a challenge: for every dollar my kids set aside to give to a charity of their choice, my husband and I would match it with two dollars. So, saving $5 over the year would mean they’d end up with $15 that they could give away to help their beloved tigers, or to feed the hungry.

The only problem? We forgot about our plan about two months in to the new year. Both my boys had regular zip-lock baggies meant to hold their charitable money and had stashed a few quarters in them. Those baggies slipped down into the backs of their drawers by March, forgotten until, well, right about now.

Even the best plans for giving back doesn’t work if there’s no follow through. Setting up a system was a good plan, but we should’ve taken time to make donation jars that would be a bit more visible than plastic baggies, and talked about the jars and putting money into them a little more regularly.

Lesson 3: Make sure your own efforts are visible to your kids.

It wasn’t intentional, but most of our giving, like our bill paying, happens through online transactions at night, after our kids are in bed. They don’t see the solicitation letters I toss into the recycling bin, they don’t know about the research we do on the programs we support, and they don’t hear the discussions we have about them. “Save, share, spend” is our financial mantra, but with our weekly trips to the grocery store and regular errands, our kids see the spending happen far more than sharing or saving.

This year, we’re going to do a better job of bringing our kids into these conversations. My hope is that if my kids see me choose not to buy a sweater I don’t really need, they will be inspired to take $2 of their Lego money and put it towards a cause close to their heart. Or, if my husband and I are researching a local nonprofit organization, we can discuss their  over the dinner table so that our kids can hear about the good work going on in our community.

Raising kids who are givers is like anything else in parenting, it’s a process we’re learning about as we go. My husband and I have made mistakes, and I’m sure we’ll make more. But there’s one thing I know we’ve got right: our family is doing something each year, together, to give back, and we’re trying our best to make the world a little better and brighter.

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