Giving Children Giving Skills

"The kids are proud!" my husband, Brian, commented, "I told them
where you were." We were vacationing in the Caribbean, and I had been
engaged in one of my quirky travel pastimes–buying children’s books
and dropping them at a local library. Brian looked pleased with
himself, our daughters hugged me, and I squirmed at having been outed.

I was raised on a Bible story in which Jesus is watching Pharisees
loudly drop coins into a tithe box at the temple door. Then a poor
widow comes along and discretely puts in a mite–a small coin of little
value. Jesus says that the widow has given more than any of them,
because she gave what little she had while they gave out of their
surplus. He also says that the Pharisees will get no reward in heaven;
their reward is the attention that they have sought and received. I’m
no longer worried about gaining or losing rewards in heaven. But the
sense has stuck that public eyes somehow diminish a gift, even if those
"public eyes" belong to two small girls.

For several reasons,
parents who were raised on similar stories need to push past the
discomfort of giving in front of their kids. New research
from the University of British Columbia reports that giving makes
people happier. In fact, how we spend our money, whether we use it to
help others has more effect on happiness than the total in the bank.
Other kinds of giving matter, too: time, for example, or knowledge. The
important thing is that children learn giving skills.

One time, I sat in my psychology office with a high schooler who had
just returned from a Habitat for Humanity trip in Peru. He poured out
an exuberant mix of images and ideas. "Where did you get this from?!" I
asked him, surprised by his intensity. "How did this stuff come to be a
part of who you are?" "From my mother," he answered immediately

I realized there was a part of his family experience that I didn’t
know. He was in my office because his parents had gone through a
difficult divorce and each family member was, in his or her own way,
struggling. We had been focused on declining grades, behavior problems
and conflicts. Pain makes us self absorbed, and he and his sister and
parents hadn’t been very focused on the well-being of the world in the
months since they had first come in to see me. It was all they could do
to muddle their way through the emotional upheaval.

"From your mother," I repeated. "How so?" "Oh," he responded, "She
used to take us to serve dinners for homeless people, and she raised
money for the animal shelter, and we were involved in our neighborhood
clean-up. . . " By the time he finished describing the many ways that
his mother had involved him in her service and giving, I had learned an
important lesson. Giving was second nature for him, like brushing his
teeth. It was part of his normal equilibrium. As soon as he began
emerging from the divorce process, it was there waiting, pulling him
back into a healthier, happier part of himself.

If we want our children to make their beds, we show them how it’s
done, we coach them through it, and we nudge them along. If we want
them to be readers, we read to them; we tell them it is important; we
read together so that reading becomes part of our bond. If we want them
to be kind to animals, we teach them how to pick up a cat and we remind
them what it feels like for an unfed pet to be hungry. We talk to
animals in peculiar ways, pet them, and invite the children to join us.
In all of these we model, explain, and encourage the desired habits and
then provide opportunities for supervised practice. But if we want them
to be civic minded or charitable, we expect them to pick it up by

Let me tell you what happened as a result of my husband exposing my
library adventure. Not long afterward, back home, our then six-year-old
picked up a book about manatees. She has always been fascinated with
marine mammals. In fact, at one point her stated goal in life was to
become an Orca whale. This time, she came down stairs crying, saying,
"Mommy, I want to send money to the manatees. I don’t want them to be

She painstakingly dictated a letter to her aunt in Florida, asking
about how to help manatees. She drew pictures of manatees being hit by
boats, with a big circle and slash around them. And she set about
raising money by pulling weeds, picking up messes, and making a one-box
garage sale in which she sold–this is the bonus part–her only Barbie.

When she was still at it two months later, I helped her to sell
drinks and brownies at a local parade. By then she had involved our
next door neighbor girl and her little sister. A friend of ours dropped
by, and as he was leaving, he drew five dollars out of his pocket.
"This is for Brynnie’s manatee fund," he said. "Our boys pulled weeds
in our back yard because they wanted to contribute."

Now, I’ve never really focused before on helping manatees, but I’ll
confess, I love it. I get that in-love-with-my-kid feeling whenever I
think of her quest. "She’s becoming a regular mooch," my husband said
when he came home from work to find an elaborately decorated ‘Change
for Manatees’ box on top of our drier. "No," I reminded him. "It’s not
mooching, it’s fundraising." My husband hates begging favors as much as
I hate the public eye. But if we both have to squirm a bit so that the
girls can grow their helping instinct into a giving habit, so be it.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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