It starts at home

When I read stories of children who start charitable foundations at age nine, or donate their birthday gifts to homeless kids, I can’t help but wonder what makes these givers so different from my seemingly selfish brood. My kids seem to possess little interest in helping others, focused more on how to increase their collection of LEGOs and stuffed animals than aiding those in need.

I’ve tried to point out how fortunate we are and explain empathy and the importance of helping others. But it’s in-one-ear, out-the-other—kind of like when I ask them to close the screen door. We use the Spend, Save, Share concept in our house, splitting allowance into a jar for spending, saving for the long term, and sharing with others. We’ve had some success, donating share jar money to Project Smile through school and to the animal rescue when we dropped off an abandoned baby bird. But for the most part, the money just sits there, forgotten.

Admittedly, I have a hard time myself with charitable giving, feeling overwhelmed by choosing the right charity out of millions, nagged by the organizations that never stop calling, and disconnected to the causes I do end up funding.

Determined to making giving a family affair, I asked Jenny Friedman, executive director of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Doing Good Together, for ideas. Doing Good Together promotes family volunteerism, “spending intentional time weaving the focus of giving back into families’ lives,” says Friedman, who also authored The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering. Here are some thoughts.

How old does a child have to be to incorporate giving into family life?

“Whatever age your children are, that’s a good age to start. The earlier you start, the more kids see it as part of what we do. Slowly they get it at a deeper and deeper level,” Friedman explains. “Empathy develops with age but some kids develop it more quickly and easily. With others it takes a lot of effort to think about what it might feel like to be somebody else.”

How do you start having a conversation about giving with your family?

“Have a nightly dinner table conversation. Ask ‘Who did you help today and who helped you?’” Friedman says it’s important to talk about how people help your family as well because we all have something to offer to others and giving should not be a one-way street, or a polarizing concept. “Don’t divide the world between givers and receivers,” Friedman says.

How can parents get kids more involved in charitable donation decisions?

It’s natural that kids won’t have their own ideas about where to donate money at first. Adults find that overwhelming too. Have a conversation about what really matters to them. Is it animals, other kids, the environment? Once you have that conversation, “pick three organizations and explain what they do,” Friedman says. “The more hands-on and easy to understand, the better.”

She likes Heifer International because it has a catalog of animals to choose from and a book, Beatrice’s Goat, that tells the story of how one animal can change a family’s life. Kids get that. 

Another way to connect kids to causes is to use their “share” money to buy supplies for hands-on projects. Buy art supplies and make cards for sick kids. Purchase fleece to make blankets. Or use the money to buy supplies on a shelter’s wish list and bring the items to the shelter with kids in tow. The shelter might even give you a tour. Use the money “to do something hands on,” Friedman suggests. “Money can be kind of abstract.”

Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to