Editor’s note: Written by Kelly Wallace, CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.
My children benefit big time since we celebrate Hanukkah at home and Christmas with my family. Two holidays mean twice the number of presents, and often more gifts than they ultimately use or care about.
What gets lost this time of year, I often feel, especially while dashing around or spending hours online to buy gifts, is the importance of giving back.
Last year, to balance the receiving with some giving, on one night of Hanukkah, our two daughters each selected a charity, and our family sent a contribution to that organization. This year, I’m hoping to do that on four of the eight nights of the holiday.
But in conversations with parents, it’s clear the best way to teach our children to think of others and want to give back during the holidays is to do that work throughout the year.
“I think one of the mistakes we make as parents is we give, give to the kids all year, and then it’s difficult for them to switch their head and think, ‘And now I have to give, give, give. Wait a minute. This is my big holiday and you’ve trained me,’ ” said parenting coach and author Vicki Hoefle, whose newest book is “The Straight Talk on Parenting: A No-Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grown-Up.”
“So part of that is what do we do throughout the year to foster that generous spirit?”
Danielle Le Roy, a mom of two boys in Chicago, said she and her husband have been conscious about that ever since they became parents 10 years ago. They “intentionally de-emphasize gift giving to each other during the holidays,” said Le Roy, chief financial officer for an information technology firm. Instead, they have a small basket of gifts that they give to people who provided the family a service throughout the year, such as mail carriers and deliverymen.
“Since we have done this from the time they were born, our kids really don’t expect Christmas gifts and they genuinely seem excited about giving gifts at this stage,” said Le Roy, who’s boys are now 8 and 10.
Hoefle, a mom of five who has been working with families for the past two decades, says introducing children to very small ways they can make a difference in their communities is the “beginning of fostering a generous spirit in general.” So parents should look for those opportunities: Is the child interested in animals? Excited about performing in front of elderly people or reading to them?
She remembers when one of her daughters wanted to give $2 of her $5 allowance to the local humane society each week, and wanted to personally bring the money to the shelter.
“We did that that for three years. Two dollars for three years,” said Hoefle, who also is author of “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids.” The shelter eventually called and wanted her daughter to come in to see what her money had paid for. “And that was a pivotal moment for everyone in the family … Suddenly, they all looked at each other (and thought), ‘This matters. This is real.’ ”
Research: Talking to kids about giving helps
Talking to our kids about how we give back — everything from our money to our time and our energies — and whom we give back to — goes a long way in building a generous spirit in children, research shows. Children whose parents talk to them about giving back were 20% more likely to give to charity than parents who did not discuss giving with their children, according to a 2013 study for the United Nations Foundation conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The study of more than 900 children over 2002-2003 and 2007-2008 is among the first to explore what parents can do to encourage charitable behavior in their children, according to Indiana University.
“This study demonstrates that parents who talk to their children about charitable giving can positively impact their children’s philanthropic behavior,” said Una Osili, director of research for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “Parents’ giving to charity is not enough to teach children to be charitable. Focused, intentional teaching by talking to children about charity is what works. This is true for children in families at all income levels and across gender, race, and age groups.”
Hoefle says we can talk to our kids about ways we give back, both practically and metaphorically. For instance, we can share experiences such as when a friend called and needed us but we had other plans, and how we changed those plans to help our friend. “I think when we communicate the ways in which we’re generous, with our time, our energy, our finances, our whatever, it becomes a more normal part of family life.”
Le Roy, who home schools her children, said her family tries to make community involvement and giving back a “continuous effort,” as opposed to a seasonal one. Throughout the year, she integrates giving back to the community into their home-schooling curriculum. This has resulted in volunteering at the local community garden and donating goods through the Cub Scouts.
“I think the best way to encourage kids to give back is to model it and make it a part of everyday life, which can be hard because life is busy,” she said. “But we really want our kids to get that life isn’t all about them (or our family).”
Hoefle, whose kids are between the ages of 21 and 26, said as they were growing up, the family made a point of doing something for their community four times a year. “It was very, very important for us to let our children know that they were part of a global citizenship,” she said. But instead of the parents deciding what the family would do, they brought the children into the conversation and made their decisions based on where the biggest needs were in the community.
“We said, ‘Who wants to contact the animal shelter? Who wants to contact the soup kitchen?’ ” she said. Too often, we, parents, buffer our kids by doing all the legwork, and then the children naturally feel less of a connection to the charitable activity, she said.
“I think getting (the children) involved from the get-go” is key, said Hoefle. “It doesn’t have to be monumental. Four times a year for a couple of hours was enough for our kids to start to see themselves as generous human beings so when the holidays came, it was no struggle saying, ‘How much are we giving? How much are we getting? Where’s the balance?’ ”
Giving-back tips for this holiday season
Ultimately, to raise children who want to give back during the holidays and all year long, we need to put the work in well before the turkey comes out of the oven on Thanksgiving.
“I think the successful families are the ones where the parents have really thought long and hard and looked at this as a long-term project and not just a short-term, let’s cram generosity down their throat, because I think the backlash is kids don’t want to give anything then because they’re forced to,” said Hoefle.
Should you still want to try to help your kids give back this time of year even though you haven’t done all the work over the past several months, there are still little things you can do that might have more impact than forcing them to give to a charity on one night of Hanukkah, like I did.
Ideas include letting your children use their own allowance money — not your money — to buy a present for their classmates, teachers or a family member; writing letters to the soldiers overseas; making homemade cards for babysitters and deliverymen; and doing holiday shopping on sites such as Goodshop, which makes a donation to the charity of your choice with nearly every purchase.
Kids sign up, pick a cause they support — whether it’s their school, a local food bank or a large organization like the American Red Cross, and then start earning donations when they make purchases from their favorite stores, said Scott Garrell, chief executive officer of Goodshop. Following Black Friday and in advance of Cyber Monday, Goodshop will be holding “Goodshop Sunday” on November 29, a day with more exclusive savings and double the donations.
“Kids can keep track of how much they’ve raised for their favorite cause as well as how much the cause has raised in general,” said Garrell. “It’s meaningful for kids to know that even simple things they can do, like shopping, can have an impact on the world around them.”‘