Four Tips for Raising a Young Philanthropist - Women's Foundation California

by Alison Sirkus Brody, Program Officer

Those of us who are operating in the world of philanthropy are often asked: How do I teach my children to be philanthropic? And how old do they have to be to start? The answer is simple: You can start with children as young as two or three.

Recently, my partner and I decided the time was right to start teaching our oldest son about money. We started giving him a weekly allowance of $6 because he is six years old. But there is a caveat: We asked him to divide his money equally every week–$2 to spend, $2 to save and $2 to give away.

While he has no trouble understanding the concept of spending money or even the concept of saving money (he likes to point out the bank in our neighborhood where he now has a savings account), we had to do some work to help him understand the concept of giving money away.

I’ve learned a lot along the way and below are four best tips for parents who want to raise generous, giving children.

Tip #1: Say No to “Phil”

When speaking to young children, do not use the words “philanthropy,” “volunteering,” “charity” or “community service.” Rather, focus on concepts like friendship, community and love–language that your child is already familiar with.

My son’s (über groovy Bay Area social justice-y) school teaches children, beginning at age three, about “being a good friend in the community.” The children learn that being a friend in the community means putting books and toys away in the classroom, picking up trash on the playground or waiting their turn for the swing.

So when I first talked to my son about giving away $2 per week, I explained that giving was a way of being a good friend in the community.  I said that some people do not have homes or jobs or money and that we can be a good friend to them by sharing some of what we have.

Tip #2: Make it experiential and relevant

Learning philanthropy is just like learning anything else; it doesn’t just happen through osmosis. If you want your child to start thinking and acting philanthropically, you have to be intentional—not only through practicing or modeling philanthropy—you have to give your child an opportunity to experience it. Otherwise, it’s just another concept that they watch you (a grown-up, a mama) do.

With his three-slotted piggy bank, my son is reminded every week that he will not only get to pick something out at the toy store, but that he will get to help somebody in the community.

Recently I asked him to think what he would like to do with his give-away money. He said he wanted to help sick people.  I was excited and kind of mystified as to where this idea came from.  I then took his idea a step further and suggested that since he loves babies so much (because they have “chubby cheeks”) we could give money to sick babies.  He seemed to like that idea!

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to explain the sad stuff

We live in San Francisco and often see panhandlers and homeless people. When my son first asked me why those people were sleeping on the street and asking for money, I wanted to avoid the topic, but I didn’t. I kept the answer simple: Sadly, that man does not have a home; not everyone has a home like you do. Or, I said, That woman does not have a job right now and needs help to buy food.

There’s nothing scary about your child knowing that there are people out there who do not have the same life that they do. In fact, understanding sad stuff provides a learning opportunity. A year after my son asked me about the person sleeping on the street, we were walking together in the city and talking about school. Then suddenly he said, “That’s so sad, mama.” I thought he was referring to something in our conversation, but I realized that he was talking about a woman we had just passed who was sleeping on the street. ­I was so proud of the empathy he was expressing and hopeful that this empathy would become a building block for his philanthropic future.

Tip #4: Make it a regular practice, or they’ll forget

We all know that children have short attention spans and that they learn through repetition. Make giving a part of their routine, however small.

At my house, as in many Jewish households, we have a tzedakah box. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word meaning righteousness, fairness and justice.  On Friday nights, as part of a short Sabbath ritual, each family member shares something that happened during the week that they are proud or grateful for and then we each put a coin in the box as a gift to help somebody else. It’s only coins that my sons are putting in the box, but it’s the action of putting them there on a regular basis that matters. It’s now part of their frame of mind to give, however small the amount, to somebody in need.

Thank you for reading and best of luck to you!

About Alison Sirkus Brody

Alison is a mother of two young boys and a lifelong philanthropist. In addition to working at the Foundation, she is also a member of the Foundation’s Economic Development and Justice Donor Circle.

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