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[Written for Humanist Network News, December 5, 2007.]

giving tree

One of the sanest, surest, and most generous joys of life comes from being happy over the good fortune of others.
Robert A. Heinlein

Who can resist the impulse to feel all gushy and reflective at this time of year? It’s no coincidence that holidays emphasizing family and charity and peace and goodwill are sprinkled through the shortest, coldest days of the year when, by golly, we’d better have each other to turn to if we’re going to make it through. Charity is naturally born in such a season, and just about everyone gladly succumbs to the best of human impulses.

One of the parental challenges of the season is to encourage impulses like generosity and discourage selfishness, greed, and insane materialism in our children. Christians try to keep their kids focused on Jesus as “the reason for the season,” or ask them to imitate what has been called God’s “supernatural generosity.” That’s fine, I suppose, but it’s hardly necessary. Secular parents should have no difficulty encouraging perfectly natural generosity. The secret is to simply let kids be generous.

The best thing about the phrase “it’s better to give than to receive” is that it’s actually true—especially for kids. Receiving is all too familiar to them. They are constantly in the receiving role. We give them food, clothing, and everything else they need. But give kids a chance to step outside the receiving role and experience the satisfaction of being the generous one, and they vibrate with excitement. They feel grown up. It empowers them.

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The best thing about the phrase “it’s better to give than to receive”
is that it’s actually true—especially for kids.

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Generosity is absolutely addicting. But to really drive the lessons home for kids, you have to make the experience their own.

Suppose your child’s school has a canned food drive for the local food shelf. Many well-meaning parents put a few extra cans in the cart during their regular shopping, then hand the cans to the kids to bring to school. It’s a good start, but the kids don’t really feel directly active in that process. They are just the link between Mom’s purchase and the school’s drive.

If instead you want them to genuinely feel the addicting “generosity buzz,” it’s best to involve them at each step. Drive them to the store, then have them take it from there.

Let the child decide how much to spend, and if at all possible, let her use her own money. The difference between Dad’s $5 and her own $5 is the difference between helping Dad be generous and being generous herself. One is passive; the other is active and addictive. Don’t even add your money to hers. Make two separate contributions if you wish.

Schools will generally provide a list of acceptable items. Let your kids go up and down the aisles and pick out the food themselves—then watch their posture the next morning as they leave the front door for school carrying bags of their own generosity.

No need to wait for school food drives, of course—your local food shelf is always happy to benefits from generosity lessons! Charities can also provide specifics about who receives donations and the difference that donations make for families in need, which helps kids to connect their giving to those who benefit.

It’s also crucial to detach generosity from external rewards. Neither schools nor parents should offer incentives for generosity, or that incentive becomes the goal. In the process, the feeling of genuine generosity is almost completely lost.

The same goes for gift giving. Try not to buy gifts for your children to give to others. Involve them in the thoughtful selection or making of gifts for friends and relatives.

Again, when it comes to gifts, we’re not working from scratch. Children love opening presents, but they are generally much more excited when someone else is opening a gift from them—especially if it’s a gift they made, or picked out and paid for, themselves.

Another good practice is to encourage children to divide their allowance or other money into three jars. No, not Jesus—Others—Yourself, but you’re close: it’s Spending, Saving, and Giving. Let the child decide how to divide the money, but let them know that something should go into each jar every time they receive money. You’ll be surprised at how their natural generosity shows up in that giving jar—especially if they’ve had the experience of active, addictive giving.

It goes without saying that there’s no better lesson for kids than seeing generosity – of time, of money, of kindness, of spirit – demonstrated firsthand by Mom and Dad. The buzz of generosity is not only addicting—it’s downright contagious.
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Parents: Looking for a non-sectarian organization to support? Consider the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), a tremendously effective organization improving the lives of children worldwide.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.