Give and let give

On our way to school the other day, my 5-year-old nonchalantly mumbled under his breath, “You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.”

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

He couldn’t remember. But as we hiked the four flights to his kindergarten class, I realized it made perfect sense in today’s times, given that most people are just trying to get by. Who has the time or resources to take care of others? Funny how a kid can zone in on the zeitgeist.

Then he asked me if we could have broccoli with garlic sauce for dinner, or something along those lines, kissed me good bye, and ran to the block-building area labeled “manipulatives.”

Philosophical musings over for him for now, I guess.

But as I headed back downstairs, besides thinking about ordering in Chinese food tonight, I also found myself thinking about when and how do we instill a sense of caring and generosity in our kids so that they’re willing to give up something in order to give to someone in need?

A friend of mine weighed in: “For any birthday or holiday, the kids get to spend a third, save a third, and give away a third to the charity of their choice. We’ve done it since they were little and now that they’re teens, it’s become a habit.”

Another acquaintance has her kids use their hobbies to help out. Her daughter, a dancer, collects outgrown leotards and donates them to a needy dance studio in a nearby community. Her son does the same with old football jerseys. They have a network of friends and friends of their friends who drop bags off at the end of each school year.

I, too, have always felt that we should give back—often and happily— since our family is incredibly blessed. So for every birthday since they were young, each of my three children has been given the option (read: strong suggestion) of asking their friends to bring nickels, dimes and quarters in lieu of presents for some sort of charitable project. To be clear, our children were in no way deprived. They received multiple presents their mom and dad, from two sets of grandparents, from aunts and uncles and cousins. So, they never showed any resentment for having to “give away” presents they felt they were due.

One of our family’s favorite memories: my youngest son’s fourth birthday. The deal was that every guest was asked to bring a few quarters for a lemonade stand. The party consisted of us decorating the lemonade stand out of a giant cardboard box, and discussing price, job assignments and location (location, location) for the right spot outside of our home. The kids loved it. The idea that they were doing something “real” seemed like a nice alternative to the typical puppet-show parties that were the trend at the time. And, equally as important, my son had a blast.

Part of what made the party so fun was not just that the dough that was raised was for charity but that it was a particular charity that resonated with 4-year-olds. There are many like it, but the one we selected—Heifer International—is incredibly cool and accessible. Raise $20 and you can actually purchase a flock of chicks which will be sent to a family in Cameroon. The money wasn’t going to some amorphous organization or cause that he really couldn’t understand. It was going to a family with a kid, probably about his age, who would then use the animal for its eggs, which would add protein to their diet. My son proudly counted out his $20 and decided on a flock of ducks for a village in China. There’s nothing quite like buying a duck—especially for a city kid.

I’m proud of our kids. But I wonder sometimes if it’s too much to ask a four-year-old, as eager and excited as he seemed to be, to give away his potential presents in order to buy a duck? Am I setting them up for major therapy bills later on in life? I think the answer is no, but that’s one we’ll just have to wait and see.

© 2009 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved

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Comments (1)

infojenie | Respond
December 21, 2010 3:40 PM PT

I think what you are doing is a fantastic idea. It not only helps instill sense of value, responsibility, compassion and humanity for others but also a sense of worthiness in themselves. Other parents should aspire to do these. I definitely will with my kids. Thanks so much for sharing this.

infojenie www.facebook.com/infojenie

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About Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner

Beth Kobliner is a personal finance expert, magazine columnist, and commentator who offers practical advice and insight on a wide range of economic and financial matters. She is author of the New York Times bestseller, "Get A Financial Life: Personal Finance In Your Twenties and Thirties." A graduate of Brown University, she lives in New York with her husband and three children.

Beth Kobliner

"Get A Financial Life." Beth Kobliner’s New York Times bestseller. Get more info or visit Beth Kobliner's Web site.