The holiday season is full of gift-giving that turns into a lifelong habit for many who give, receive and observe as children: giving from parents and grandparents to kids, from spouses and sweethearts to one another, even between friends and neighbors.
But what about giving to others? How do children learn to care about people they don't know? Parents and child-rearing experts have come up with a few ways to instill generosity as a lifelong value.
Giving may be more appealing to a child as a team effort with parents, siblings or friends, for example.
And common sense plays a big role. As with other children's activities, it pays to aim for giving opportunities that suit the child's age. A small child should not be dragged to a long fundraising event or put to something terrifying, like dealing with dying people or badly injured animals. A simple task like walking a dog or making holiday decorations will work better.
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Older kids can take on more complex challenges, like helping an immigrant learn English or assisting in someone's physical therapy, but topics like tax deductions for charitable contributions can wait for adulthood.
Experts discourage rewards and say children should learn to do good for the sake of doing good and for the pleasure they can get from making others happy.
A number of themes emerge in discussing the giving spirit and children. Here are five of the most prominent.
1. Lead by example, and do it together. Jean Shafiroff, author of "Successful Philanthropy: How To Make a Life By What You Give," urges parents to lead the way. "Children listen to their parents and often emulate them," she says. "Philanthropy should begin at a young age."
She recommends finding a cause the parent and child can participate in together. "By working together, the parent can teach the child many of life's important skills as they relate to dealing with different kinds of people," she says. "A child will learn the importance of helping the less fortunate. Family bonding through philanthropy is something that can bring a family closer over a lifetime. ... The key is to make the act of giving interesting to children so that they will want to make philanthropy a part of their lives."
2. Do it all the time. Like other behavior taught to children, a giving spirit can be instilled by making it a routine part of life, not a rare activity dusted off for the holidays. Many experts espouse random acts of kindness — simply being alert to others' needs and acting.
"One of the greatest values is to give back, on random occasion, without expecting anything in return," says Sugandha Jain, director of accreditation of the Kids 'R' Kids Learning Academy of North Austin, Texas. "Instilling these small everyday acts of kindness into kids will give the greatest return in the end. Things such as doing a secret good deed for a neighbor, like mowing the lawn, opening the door for strangers, sharing snacks with friends or even collecting donations of markers, books and bulletin board decorations for a new teacher at school."
Other activities that appeal to children, she says, include collecting hotel-size shampoo and soaps for homeless shelters, giving one's hair to a cause, like Locks of Love, helping to clean local parks or walk dogs at an animal shelter.
3. Make it joyous. While giving is meant to benefit someone else, it need not be a miserable chore or sacrifice for the giver.
"Teaching our children the art of giving back was precisely what the founding parents of nonprofit Breakfast Club for Seniors had in mind," recalls Beth Fichtel, a founding member of the three-year-old Yardley, Pennsylvania, group that packs healthy breakfasts for homebound seniors.
"Children volunteers ranged from a year old to nine years old, helping to organize and pack food donations, create inspirational letters and artwork, as well as recycle boxes," she said. "Kids look forward to the quarterly Packing Parties because they know how good it feels to help others. ... The smiles they share when delivering the breakfast bags to the needy become contagious.
4. Use imagination, and be timely. Author and speaker Robin Samora built a list of "50 Ways To Be Thankful and Show Random Acts of Kindness" that include simple reminders, like writing thank-you notes, playing with a younger sister or brother and sharing a snack.
Other small acts she suggests include passing out homemade Christmas tree decorations to strangers on the bus, organizing a turkey giveaway at Thanksgiving, carrying extra umbrellas to lend on rainy days.
5. Count your blessings. In "The Giving Book," a workbook for children, author Ellen Sabin urges her readers to "think about someone who has helped you or given you something special." Her point is not to instill a sense of obligation but to encourage children to share in the pleasure that giving produces. "Isn't it a great feeling when someone helps you or gives you something you need?" she writes. "Well, YOU can help other people feel special, too. YOU can make them happier. YOU can make them healthier. YOU can make the world a better place."
The book is laced with object lessons, poems and fables, like the one about the boy who asks an old man why he is "wasting time" throwing stranded starfish back into the sea when there must be thousands of beaches and millions of starfish. "How can you make a difference?" the boy asks.
"The old man looked down at the starfish in his hand, and as he threw it to the safety of the ocean, he said, 'I make a difference to this one.'"
— By Jeff Brown, special to CNBC.com