On Friday, March 11, 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan. A New York Times account stated skyscrapers shook, furniture toppled, and highways buckled. Thirty-foot waves rushed onto shore, whisking away cars and carrying blazing buildings toward factories, fields and highways. Thousands of homes were destroyed, roads became impassable, mass transit halted, and power and cell phones were downed.
By the next morning, as reported by the Times, “Japan was filled with scenes of desperation as stranded survivors called for help and rescuers searched for people buried in the rubble.” This catastrophic event caused more than 15,800 deaths and an estimated $300 billion in damage.
My daughter had just turned eleven, and sat glued to the tsunami news accounts on our TV. She stared in disbelief at the destruction, and was asking more questions than I had answers. Her compassion and sympathy were remarkable, but it also concerned me that she was connecting too personally to this tragic event. She continued to follow the situation in Japan as the days passed.
The following Friday, my daughter’s school principal called. He said my daughter had asked if she could raise money for the tsunami victims. Although she hadn’t said anything to me, I wasn’t surprised. The two of them had created a fundraising plan and he was calling to tell me what they discussed and to get my permission. I agreed, and for the next week my daughter and a few of her friends went to school early and asked for loose change from their classmates as they arrived at school. By the end of the week the students had donated nearly $800 to the cause. With my contribution, the total raised was an even $800 – quite a feat for a little girl who was touched by a tragedy she witnessed on TV and wanted to do something to help.
All the money was given to the local chapter of the American Red Cross for donation to the crises in Japan. In the weeks that followed, several other children in the local area were inspired to initiate similar fundraisers in their schools.
According to Yes You Can, an online publication from American Century Proprietary Holdings, Inc., two crucial elements to help children engage in charitable giving are parental involvement and encouragement. “When children see the adults in their lives actively involved in philanthropic causes, it can inspire the children to find their own causes they want to support. And, the sooner they start, the more likely it’ll make a lasting impression.”
Here are some other steps outlined by Yes You Can that parents can take to help teach their young children the joy of helping others:
START YOUNG. Begin encouraging philanthropy as soon as your children can grasp the concept. A great first step with young children is the three piggy bank system. Every time your child receives money, encourage him/her to divide the money between three piggy banks: one for saving, one for spending, and one for sharing (giving). Giving isn’t always financial. Children can volunteer their time and talent, too. Organizations such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts have age-appropriate volunteer opportunities for younger children that can be a fun way to introduce children to giving.
MAKE THE EXPERIENCE RELEVANT AND HANDS-ON. This doesn’t mean you drag your children, regardless of their age, to your board meetings and fundraisers. While important to you, that approach may backfire with your children. According to Alison Sirkus Brody, program officer for The Women’s Foundation of California, parents should not only intentionally model philanthropic behavior, they should also give their child an opportunity to experience it. Otherwise, philanthropy remains just another concept that they watch you do.
For example, if your child is an animal lover, consider suggesting that his or her next birthday party support a local animal shelter. All of the children attending can bring supplies for the shelter. Check with the shelter to see if you can bring all of the attendees to visit on the day of the party so everyone gets to see where their gift is going and how it benefits the animals in the shelter. When children can see how their gifts will actually be put to use, it can have a real impact on them.
ESTABLISH A STRUCTURE FOR GIVING AND MAKE IT A REGULAR PRACTICE. Giving can easily transition from a warm fuzzy thought to an everyday behavior when parents identify a giving structure and maintain a routine around the structure, whether that is using three piggy banks, enrolling kids in a social service organization, or identifying local giving opportunities with their children.
No matter which giving strategy you decide to use with your children, be sure to make it a regular practice. Your child learns so much by watching and imitating you, and philanthropy is no exception. With parental involvement and encouragement, all children can learn simple acts of giving that can follow them throughout life.
TEACHABLE MOMENTS FROM YES YOU CAN
- Talk with your children about the types of organizations or projects that are important to your family. For instance, do you have a family member in a nursing home? If so, your children could make crafts or other decorations for that relative and others who live there. Is there a homeless shelter in your community that can use occasional cooks or food servers? Perhaps you and your teenagers could sign-up to help on a monthly or quarterly basis.
- If you choose to raise money for charity — through a lemonade stand or garage sale — take advantage of this opportunity to talk about budgets and balancing income vs. expenses. How much did it cost to establish the lemonade stand? How much did you earn? Teach children how to determine their net profit (subtracting expenses from earnings).
- If you are personally involved with a charitable organization, share with your children why you became involved, what it means to you, and how your involvement makes a difference for others.