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Teaching Children How to Give Back

By Nell Edgington

My 7-year old son announced the other day that he didn’t want to give money this year to the same nonprofit we gave money to last year because that organization is “dumb.” Now let me point out that the little guy was in a bad mood and feeling fiesty, so his frustration was probably exaggerated. However, I realized as I continued talking with him that his exasperation stemmed from a lack of understanding about the realities of the world he lives in.

Each year my two sons and I decide together where our family Christmas donation will go. Last year we selected a nonprofit that buys toys for local children who otherwise won’t get any. Because my 7-year old has so many toys, and for the most part gets what he wants at Christmas and birthdays, it suddenly became unfathomable to him that other children might not get toys for Christmas. Therefore, he thought it was “dumb” to give money to an organization that would buy toys for other kids. As he said, “Why should we give our toy money to other kids so they can buy toys?”

I suddenly recognized that my sons were completely sheltered from kids who didn’t have as much as they did. The children my kids go to school with all come from similar middle-class households, they all have enough to eat and enough to play with. Aside from theĀ  volunteer activities we do, my boys have no exposure to people who have a different background or life experience than they do.

But this article from Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill made me realize that my family is not alone. As she puts it, “Our social lives bring us less frequently into contact with a broad range of the community than was true in past decades, and many of us are less likely to be active in community groups that address the needs of those in our neighborhoods.” We are much more sheltered than generations past from those who are different from, or needier than us. That means our children are growing up not realizing that there are deep needs in our communities that we are obligated as fellow citizens to help address.

Merrill highlights a couple of examples from a growing list of programs that are aimed at addressing this gap in our children’s understanding of the needs of our community, like the one-hour PBS special Growing Hope Against Hunger, featuring a muppet named Lily whose family regularly does not have enough to eat, and Little Givers, a ten-week class about philanthropy for three- to five-year-olds. Another organization that Merrill doesn’t mention, is one of my favorites and a regular for me and my boys, Little Helping Hands here in Austin, Texas. Little Helping Hands provides opportunities for parents and their young children to volunteer across the city in food pantries, recycling centers, parks, homeless shelters, and much more. I’ve talked about the merits of this amazing nonprofit before.

It is really unfortunate that it is necessary to have organizations like these to teach our kids about the needs of others. But I’m glad that we do. These days it is an on-going job of parenthood to make sure your children realize how lucky they are and how that luckiness requires them to give back. And my husband and I obviously have more work to do.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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4 Comments to Teaching Children How to Give Back

Meredith Hilt
November 14, 2011

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

We faced the same challenges at our house and thought we could teach by volunteering together as a family. But, it’s hard to find direct-service volunteer jobs that are available for kids as young as ours.

We had the most success with a local organization that delivered meals to low-income seniors. Not only did we enjoy volunteering together as a family, but our kids came into contact with homes very different from ours.

Nell Edgington
November 14, 2011

Meredith, that’s a great volunteering idea. Also, depending on where you live there are volunteer programs for young children, like Little Helping Hands, cropping up across the country. You might see if there is a similar organization near you.

[…] Teaching Children How to Give Back […]

Meredith Hilt
November 15, 2011

Thanks, Nell. Yes, we found a few toddler friendly volunteer programs, but they were far removed from recipients.

I’m encouraged that more families are interested in these opportunities. And that charities are responding with creative ways to involve our communities’ youngest volunteers.

Again, thanks for a great post.

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