Few things are likely to induce greater growth in our own personal generosity than teaching our children to be generous. That this is a process rather than an event is well understood conceptually but executed less well in practice.
That is, parents who do focus intentionally on teaching their children to be more generous typically do so through a series of discrete moments and events, with the implicit assumption being that children who experience enough discrete encounters with generosity will grow up to be generous people.
P + P + P + P ≠ E
In other words:
Doing a lot of different charitable projects with your children does not in and of itself usher them into a mature lifestyle of generosity. Instead, it ushers them into a lifestyle of doing a lot of different charitable projects.
In Transformational Giving we distinguish between three different kinds (not degrees) of relationship to charitable causes. In brief:
- Participation (P) is project focused, short-term, high-touch, and understandable without external reference to an organization. Child sponsorship, filling Christmas shoeboxes, and giving gifts of Christmas goats to global south countries are all examples of Participation activities.
- Engagement (E) is lifestyle focused. At this level, commitment to a cause extends beyond a series of discrete participation projects and into a significant and mature level of daily awareness and involvement in a cause. Here the person is fundamentally changed through equipping, education, and experience.
- Ownership (O) is replication oriented. Here we understand that it is our responsibility, not a nonprofit’s responsibility to spread a cause [editor’s note: that’s different than spreading a nonprofit!] in our sphere of influence.
Typically, parents who seek to help their children to be generous do so through P-level activities, for example: “Kids, let’s buy a turkey to donate at church this Sunday. There are other families who don’t have food to eat like we do, so let’s help out.”
In and of itself, it’s a great move: We absolutely need to begin with P-level activities like this to get our children on the generosity curve in the first place.
The challenge comes when we stay at this level with our children and simply repeat the same activities or bounce from activity to activity. Then we run the risk of inadvertently convincing our children that donating a Thanksgiving turkey is “doing our part”.
Instead, just as we ourselves need to grow from Participation to Engagement to Ownership in causes, we need to help our children be aware of and experience the same growth.
A few ideas in this regard:
- When doing a Participation-level activity with your children, ask yourself ahead of time, “How can I build on this activity in growing them into Engagement in the cause?” For example, the first year you might bring a turkey to church. The second year you might take your children to a rescue mission to serve a meal. The third year you might invite a poor family to share Thanksgiving dinner with you in your home, and so on. Rather than a series of Participation activities, in other words, seek a progression that helps grow your children from thinking of a cause in terms of seasonal projects into thinking of a cause in terms of a lifestyle.
- Be careful not to simply give your children the “fun” part of the giving project. In other words, having them write the monthly letter to the child you sponsor while you write the sponsorship check does indeed teach them something about charity…but likely not the lesson you really want to teach them.
- Consider matching your children’s giving, perhaps even on a 10 to 1 basis. This is a great way to motivate generosity in adults, and it works no less well with children. All of us are fascinated by our own efforts being multiplied.
- Help your children create their own Eternity Portfolio. Teach them from a young age to give strategically and comprehensively. Teach giving the same way you teach saving and investing. (Oops–I guess we’d better start teaching our children those things, too…)
- Involve your children in deciding where and what percentage of the family resources as a whole are given. You can even set aside part of your family’s giving as “Kid’s choice”. Have them help you determine how much in such a way that they are making trade-offs that genuinely impact them. For example, help them see how eating a meal at home instead of going out for pizza translates into more money to give away. The way children will make generous choices when they grow up is to give them the opportunity to make generous choices as children.
- Be an O to your children’s P…which is a fancy way of saying: walk your children through your own growth in the causes that are important to you. Why did you get involved in a cause in the first place? What have you learned the longer you’ve been involved? When did you experience disappointment in relation to the cause, and why, and what did you do to address that?
- Debrief your P-level family jaunts with E in mind. In other words, after you take the kids down to the homeless shelter to serve a meal, ask them challenging questions. Give them books and articles to read.
Becoming generous takes at least as much intentionality as learning to drive, and yet we devote far less time, resources, attention, and wisdom to the task. By becoming more intentional about growing our children in the grace of generosity, we accrue a great unanticipated benefit:
We become more mature in our own generosity as well.