Ten Tips to Help Parents Plant the Philanthropy Seed

This Thanksgiving, help your children to follow in the footsteps of the holiday’s original Pilgrim and Native American celebrants by giving generously to others.

On Thanksgiving, many Americans are preoccupied with turkeys, parades, football games, and even Black Friday sales. It seems that over time, this holiday has become more about getting things—whether that’s food, entertainment, or bargains—than about giving thanks for what we already have. (And really, that’s just a reflection of our society’s general gimme-gimme-gimme attitude.) If you’re like most parents, you don’t want your kids to grow up focused solely on themselves, concerned only with the latest video game or with how they can get their way. You want them to feel genuine gratitude for the blessings they have and to demonstrate thought and concern for others.

According to Todd Patkin, there’s no better time than the Thanksgiving holiday to help your kids become less me-focused and more thoughtful.

“In general, I don’t believe that kids act selfishly because they genuinely don’t care about others—it’s more that they aren’t really sure how to help others and give back, because they aren’t being taught,” asserts Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In “It’s crucial for adults—especially those of us who are parents—to start early when it comes to raising our kids with a passion for philanthropy, and Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity.”

“I’m convinced that the ‘me’ generation isn’t as egocentric at heart as it’s made out to be,” he confirms. “However, kids do need to be guided in a positive direction, and often, that starts in the home. Parents are the greatest influencers when it comes to developing their kids’ habits and behaviors—including cultivating a desire to give and to help others. If they see you giving back as a part of your regular life, they’ll learn that behavior and carry it with them into adulthood.”

Ready to help your child take the first steps from selfishness to selflessness? Then read on for ten ways that parents can get their children geared up for giving back:

Explain philanthropy to your kids. Before you and your kids get into the proverbial trenches, it’s important to first help them realize that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money, and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. It’s important, especially when kids are young, to start with the very basics of why it’s important to give. For example, you might ask them, “If you did not have enough food to eat or warm clothes to wear on a cold day, wouldn’t you want someone (even if you did not know them) to help you so you got the food and warmth you needed?”

It’s never too early to start (don’t wait until your kids are “old enough”). Empathy is a concept that children can learn from a very early age, so look for and take advantage of teachable moments. You can start with something as basic as encouraging small children to share with one another. Ask them to consider how they’d feel if they didn’t have a toy, and how their feelings would change if a friend gave them one, for example.

Make it a part of everyday life. As most parents know, you’ll probably never have as much time or money as you’d like, so waiting for “just a little more” of either is futile. When it comes to giving back, there is no better time to start than now, using what you already have! You don’t need to possess unlimited time or money to get involved—you can find smaller, simpler ways to make helping others a part of your everyday routine.

Get kids involved in the process. The more you let your children become involved in the philanthropy process, the more they’ll be invested in what you’re doing. Bring your kids in from the beginning by allowing them to help choose which organizations the family volunteers for or donates to. They’ll feel more connected to the cause, and even the youngest members can be involved, even if it just means tagging along.

Reinforce the value of a random act of kindness. Giving back is not always about a charity organization, a monetary donation, or volunteering—in other words, things you schedule. Kids need to understand that having a heart for others, at its core, is a way of life, not a series of appointments on your calendar. Show them that helping someone else and not expecting anything in return can happen anytime, anywhere. (You might even use the original Thanksgiving story to illustrate the value of reaching out to others, especially those who are different from us.) In fact, it’s often the small everyday acts that give us the biggest returns in terms of fulfillment and happiness, and they are things that are easy for kids to recognize and take action on.

Understand (and explain) that philanthropy is not one-size-fits-all. Kids naturally have more aptitude for some activities than others. The child who’s a natural artist may be stymied and bored by the intricacies of baseball—and the same principle is true when it comes to giving back. It’s important to tailor philanthropic work to a child’s personality and interests. For example, you wouldn’t take your daughter to the animal shelter if she were afraid of dogs larger than a throw pillow!

There’s no substitute for real-world experience. Encouraging your kids to earmark a percentage of their allowances or to donate some of their lesser-used toys to charity is a good start—but don’t stop there. If your children can see where their donations are going and how they’re actually helping others, the giving experience will be much more real. Consider taking a family trip to visit recipient organizations so that your children can see where the money goes.

Make it a family affair. When you give back as a family, your kids will see Mom and Dad as role models. Bonus: You’ll all grow closer to each other because of this shared experience. Commit as a family to spend two days per month working with a charity or doing something to help others—even if that just means helping out elderly neighbors or volunteering at the church yard sale. You might also work together to raise money for a walk, fundraiser, or other project, then walk together on race day, or go together as a family to present the money you’ve raised.

Help your kids to focus on how good it feels to give back. Everyone likes to feel good, and kids are certainly no exception! When they feel good about something, they—like you—will want to do it again. In fact, that good feeling will be the impetus that keeps your kids motivated to continue helping others even after you’ve relinquished oversight of their daily schedules. Help them to focus on how fulfilled they are when they are doing something to help others.

Make sure that your expectations are realistic. At the end of the day, kids are still kids. You can’t expect them to always want to donate their toys or to be able to sit still and pay attention through every single event or presentation. (Be honest with yourself—sometimes your own attention wanders, too!) Be conscious of your children’s ages and capabilities, and (without being too quick to exclude them from an activity or event that might not be “fun” from start to finish) keep in mind that your budding philanthropists are still kids.

“Ultimately, raising children who understand the value of giving back—and whose lives reflect that knowledge—is one of the most philanthropically minded things parents can do, and this holiday provides the perfect opportunity,” Patkin concludes. “Don’t forget that Thanksgiving isn’t just about ‘thanking’—it’s about giving as well. After all, the original celebrants gave their food and friendship to one another, and helping others is an American legacy I’d like to see continue. And from a parental point of view, you’ll be amazed at how rewarding it is to raise philanthropists, and how much stronger giving back makes your relationship with your kids.”

Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.