Raising a Charitable Child

Teach your children about philanthropy through these fun and easy projects.

The old song goes, “Summertime, and the living is easy.” That may hold true for your children, as they enjoy a few months of out-of-school fun and freedom. Unfortunately, the rest of the world never takes time off from its burdens and societal ills— and neither do you, the harried parent struggling to find ways to fill up kids’ summertime schedules!

That’s why now is a perfect time to introduce charity and philanthropy into your child’s life. Not only can volunteerism provide some much-needed structure to a child’s vacation days, it can also teach him the sorts of values that aren’t always included in a school’s core curriculum: generosity, kindness, tolerance, compassion and selflessness.

Whiling away a summer at the pool or the mall is not going to jolt kids out of the consumerist, “gimme-gimme” mindset that permeates our society. And while a summer job or internship may certainly teach kids the importance of hard work, such endeavors often only address a child’s immediate interest— be it saving up money for a car or earning a nice letter of recommendation for college applications. Adults must also expose children to worlds beyond their own, to show them how being a productive member of society means helping others as well as helping themselves.

Best of all— again, for both kids and their parents— do-gooding can truly be easy and fun, requiring minimum adult legwork and supervision and maximum enjoyment for young and old combined. There are philanthropic projects suitable for kids of all ages, backgrounds and abilities; children as young as 3 or 4 years old can do their part and understand the results of their generous actions.

Of course, some kids won’t see the fun in philanthropy— at first. Here’s where some sneaky parenting is required. One of the keys to introducing reluctant children to volunteerism is to give them some control over the situation. So, while you might insist that volunteering is a non-negotiable part of your child’s summer to-do list, you can let him decide which friend or what snacks to bring along.

Here are some project ideas. All of them are easily adaptable to kids of all ages and groups of all sizes.

Donate just a few dollars.

When my sons were 4 and 6 years old, my husband and I started a new birthday tradition with them: We gave each one $20 to donate to the charity of his choice. Jono decided to give his gift to the Missouri Botanical Garden, because he loved the Garden café’s toasted cheese sandwiches. Teddy wanted to be a scientist when he grew up, so he donated to the St. Louis Science Center.

Rather than just dropping their donations in the mail, we called each charity to tell them about our sons’ contributions. We explained that, while we were only giving a token amount, we wanted to make the occasion memorable. Both charities could not have been nicer or more accommodating: Teddy got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Science Center, while Jono’s picture was taken at the Garden and printed in the local paper.

You can adapt this birthday tradition into a summertime tradition for your children. For youngsters, simply ask them what things they like, what they want to be when they grow up or what makes them happy, then find a local charity to match their interests. Older children and teenagers can turn this into a longer project (all the better to occupy more of their free days!) by taking on the research aspect themselves, looking up charities online or at the local library.

Form a “giving gang.”

Your child and his or her friends can organize their own volunteering group, taking on different charity projects all summer long. Children as young as 8 or 9 years old can usually handle this level of commitment and responsibility. Encourage the group to aim for one volunteer project a month.

Keep the group small (about five kids) and organize a brief kickoff meeting (perhaps a barbecue) with your child’s friends and their parents. Brainstorm the kinds of charity work the kids might like to do together— some super outdoor activities might include cleaning up a local playground or creek bed, walking dogs at an animal shelter or helping out at your church’s annual car wash fundraiser. The children might come up with many different volunteer projects they want to try, or they might choose just one organization to which they’ll donate their time throughout the summer.

Again, while older kids and teens can probably research projects and charities on their own, a group of younger kids will need their parents to pinpoint specific projects suitable for them. Make sure you and the other parents can provide enough snacks, transportation and adult supervision during the kids’ volunteering time, if the charity can’t provide all those things on its own.

I’ve heard of many “giving gangs” that have lasted for years and years, expanding from their original membership and providing fun learning experiences for all involved.

Go beyond the book club.

Most children will spend at least a portion of their summer reading. It may be as part of the local library’s summer book club, it may be required reading for when school starts in the fall or it may just be for fun. No matter what the reason, you can build on books to create meaningful volunteering opportunities.

For example with Billy Crystal’s recent bestseller Grandpa’s Little One (HarperCollins), you could plan a visit to a home for the elderly.

Or, why not translate a child’s love of reading into the simple joy of reading for others? Children can read to toddlers at a shelter. Some libraries need volunteer readers for story hour. Teenagers might be able to involve themselves in a reading-for-the-blind program.

Make a family trip unforgettable.

“Volunteer vacations” are quickly becoming a popular summer-travel choice for families. Virtually all of them are organized as any vacation package would be, through such non-profit groups as the American Hiking Society, Cross-Cultural Solutions or the Sierra Club. There are vacations to suit every family, schedule and budget. You can sign up to preserve forested land, build low-income housing or teach English— the possibilities are truly endless, and organizations will work with you to find a trip that fits your family’s endurance, abilities and desires.

While a volunteer vacation may sound like a lot to put a children through— and you may well have to prepare them, physically, mentally and emotionally— I bet you’ll be surprised to find how your children will rise to the task. Volunteer vacations appeal to children’s sense of adventure. I know of one mother and father who, years ago, took their two young boys to Haiti for two weeks to help out at a home for dying children. Those two sons have grown up to become a doctor and a lawyer. Both claim the trip to Haiti sparked their interest in those fields. They also say it proved to be one of the most important and memorable experiences of their lives.

If planning a getaway is too much for your family, why not take a volunteer vacation in your own town? You can save on transportation costs and skip the packing! No matter where you live, there is almost always a completely different culture close by where you can make a contribution. Plus, you’ll be showing your kids that you don’t need a train, plane or automobile in order to be somebody who can make a difference.