If you and your children volunteered at a soup kitchen over the Thanksgiving weekend, good for you. But if you really want that charitable impulse to stick, that event should be just the beginning.
Many experts on philanthropy and children contend that ongoing discussions about giving and helping, not just one-time events, are also key to raising charity-minded kids.
"It is an ongoing process where parents perform the activities with their children, and they talk with their children about how they felt," said Dwight Burlingame, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
A 2013 study for the United Nations Foundation that examined charitable giving by children reached a similar conclusion. Indiana researchers using data from 2002-2003 and 2007-2008, found that both boys and girls were more likely to give to charity if their parents talked to them about it, regardless of their age, family income or ethnicity.
"Parents' giving to charity is not enough to teach children to be charitable. Focused, intentional teaching by talking to children about charity is what works, " the study found.
Other experts say families who find ways to give together on a regular basis help their children develop charitable impulses. Activities can vary depending on the age of the children. Families with small children may opt to collect spare change in a jar, and then have periodic family meetings to decide which cause needs help. Seven– or 8–year–old kids can join in a drive to collect canned food for a food pantry.
Teens may prefer service opportunities with friends as well as family members, like a group effort to tutor children in a homeless shelter. Daniel Horgan, executive director of the youth service enterprise generationOn, said teens may also be interested in global service opportunities around an issue like human trafficking. Summer service trips can play a role in boosting their social awareness, but so can the Web, he said.
"Kids are more drawn to international or global causes than sometimes to causes within their own community because of the way they have tapped into social media," said Horgan. With celebrity endorsements and crowdfunding opportunities, global causes may "feel more immediate than the food bank down the road."
Websites like learningtogive.org have resources for parents and children looking for ideas, and generationOn offers a service clubs program.
Children need to learn to give back now not least because some $59 trillion in wealth will be transferred between 2007 and 2061, according to the Boston College Center for Wealth and Philanthropy. Some of that money will be passed down or go toward paying estate taxes, but a significant chunk will likely be given to charities.
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Certainly children can learn early on that giving feels good.
According to a study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and two colleagues from the University of British Columbia, the amount of money people earn has less influence on their happiness than how they spend it, and those who spend at least some of their money on others are happier than those who do not.
Thomas Haller, a psychologist and family therapist who has written about children and charity, says there is no reason to wait to teach even young children about giving back.
"At what point do you give your kid a spoon to eat with? Early on," he said. "They don't do it very well, but they learn. It's the same with charity. You want to do it early on."