10/05/2011 03:42 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Thanksgiving And Charity: Teaching Kids To Give Back


As we go about our busy days -- fretting about deadlines, school lunches, car payments and credit card bills -- it can be difficult to make charity a priority. But as Thanksgiving approaches, it might give us pause to wonder: does my child understand charity?

Kids are growing up in a materialist, gotta-have-it culture, and very little of the ideas bombarding them have to do with giving to others and selfless acts of kindness. But there are ways to steer your child away from a self-centred worldview and to help them learn to live a more charitable life.

Parenting expert and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer says if parents act in a way that shows charity is an important part of life, their kids will grow up knowing giving matters. For example, if parents ask their kids to help collect cans of food for a food bank, especially at a young age -- like two, three or four years old -- the kids will be more likely to lend a hand at school or when someone in their community needs assistance.

Joe Rich, social worker and author of Parenting: The Long Journey, agrees modelling is important and says it's OK to show kids how to perform charitable acts before they actually understand the meaning behind them.

"Have your kids involved in giving to charity, but don't assume they understand what's happening," he says. "If you do the activity long enough -- whatever they need to learn -- they will learn along the way."

Rich says it's a good idea to start local when it comes to introducing the concept of charity to your kids. "For example, if Aunt Sally had breast cancer, [explain why you're donating money to help people with the disease]. Make it real and make it local," he says. As a child grows, their concept of "local" can grow with it, especially because of advances in technology.

"It really is a global village now," says Rich. "Local can be [the] aunt who lives in South Africa -- while working at a charity for children -- a child Skypes with. If [a child] wants to, she can even help build a school in another country and can actually see that school with Google Earth."

It's also important to choose campaigns that meet the child's interests, says Schafer. There are lots of campaigns that appeal to kids, whether it's buying a chicken or a goat for a far-off village through Plan Canada or cheering on a sponsored sea turtle in Conservation International's Great Turtle Race.

"Some kids are interested in having a foster child in another country, some are more interested in the local zoo," says Schafer. "So long as you're engaging your kids where they're interested, that's what's important. Don't push your own agenda."

You can also discuss giving your child's old baby toys to a local women's shelter. Just remember, if you have a child who doesn't want to part with their items, don't force them to.

Instead, says Rich, ask them if they'd like to go pick out their favourite book or toy at a store and then send it to someone who really needs something special. "They may be very attached to their stuff, but perfectly happy to do another kind of charity, which is why, in our lives, some of us serve soup and some of us do mail-outs and some of us just send a cheque. Everybody gives in a way that's comfortable for them."