Teaching Generosity to Children
March 19, 2015 6:59 AM   Subscribe

I am godmother to a lively little two-year old. Part of my relationship with her is to teach her about generosity and giving. Her birthday is coming up, and I am thinking about a birthday gift for this year, I wanted to ask you: what are some concrete ways I can contribute to this aspect of her growth?

Her parents are lovely, giving people themselves so she has some great role models at home. I want to think of material and activity-based ways that I can help to support this character development.

I've opened a custodial account and am periodically contributing to it; the idea is that I can turn it over to her when she's 18 and she can choose to do what she wants with the money, but my hope is that she will think about she can use the small pot of money to make her community and the world a better place.

What are other ways I can teach to her about giving, now and as she gets older? I'm open to any ideas you might have. My thought for this year was maybe to get her "The Giving Tree" (or if anyone has any good children's books about sharing and giving...). She's two, I wanted to start with simple things...
posted by noonday to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The local pet shelter often posts photos of young kids who've asked their friends to bring donated food or toys (from the shelter's wish list) instead of gifts to their birthday party, and then either the whole party or just the birthday kid goes to the shelter and delivers the donations. I think it's such a neat thing. I doubt it's something you want to force on a child, but I think it could be a great suggestion when she gets a little older.

You could also have her help you figure out a place to donate some money, maybe in her name, just to start normalizing the idea.
posted by jaguar at 7:04 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

As she gets new toys, games, etc. at birthdays and Christmas, have a clean-up day where she pulls out old toys that she has outgrown or doesn't play with anymore to donate to Goodwill. Have an age-appropriate discussion (maybe start with "sharing" at this age) about giving toys to kids who don't have them.
posted by trivia genius at 7:06 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Can part of her birthday gift be a donation? Like, give her a toy cow and donate a cow in her name to a village, then sit down with her and talk about what that means?
posted by xingcat at 7:07 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is she 2 now and turning 3, or is she turning 2? Makes a big difference developmentally for what is age-appropriate this year.
posted by gatorae at 7:08 AM on March 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

A bird feeder -- but check with the parents first to make sure they would enjoy regularly refilling feeders.
posted by kmennie at 7:19 AM on March 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

As she gets new toys, games, etc. at birthdays and Christmas, have a clean-up day where she pulls out old toys that she has outgrown or doesn't play with anymore to donate to Goodwill. Have an age-appropriate discussion (maybe start with "sharing" at this age) about giving toys to kids who don't have them.

Even better, why not take her shopping on her birthday for two toys--one for her, one brand new (not a hand me down she's outgrown or bored with) for a toy bank at a shelter or hospital or toy drive? If I had a nickel for everyone who thinks "the poor" would be grateful for a drop off of expired canned food or a cracked wooden cutting board or a jacket with holes that reeks of mildew...

Start now at making the economically disadvantaged into "people like us."

(I also love the Heifer International donation idea--and it could involve telling some great stories about animals, farms, other ways of living across the globe, etc.).
posted by blue suede stockings at 7:20 AM on March 19, 2015 [10 favorites]

kmennie's mention of a bird feeder is a great idea; we have one and my kid loves helping to "care for nature", in his words, by cleaning and filling the feeder. At this age, the more concrete and immediate, the better, really.

In his preschool class, another book that comes up when they have a unit on sharing is The Rainbow Fish.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:30 AM on March 19, 2015

(Just a quick pop-in for clarification per gatorae's question: she's turning two... any development-appropriate recommendations for this birthday and for all subsequent birthdays are welcome!)
posted by noonday at 7:36 AM on March 19, 2015

I don't think I'd get her The Giving Tree as a "sharing is good" book; the message is a little more complicated than that.

Two is really young to be learning about generosity at anything but the most basic level. She's not yet likely to understand things like charity donations or giving toys to Goodwill (those can come later). Involving her in a hands-on activity like baking cookies for her neighbors and friends will make more of an impression: it's fun to do, and doing nice things for people she knows will be easier to grasp than doing nice things for people she hasn't met. And if it's something she gets to make, and gets to have some of, it'll feel less like "Here's a gift! But it's not for you!"
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:59 AM on March 19, 2015 [13 favorites]

At 2, I think modeling the behavior you want her to copy is the best bet--saying please and thank you and offering things to others and sharing your treats and so on. Not every occasion of childhood has to have a lesson built in. Let her enjoy her presents when she receives them. She can help with sorting toys and things to be donated, but I don't think that the give-away has to always coincide with her receiving a present. If you want her to understand the joy of giving to someone else, the joy has to be there to share. At 2, she's going to be selfish and me first! and all that goes along with that age, and with guidance, she'll grow out of it. The only way out is through, as they say.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:21 AM on March 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

The virtues of generosity and giving are a bit beyond a two year old; I think that the major skill they need to learn first is the idea of sharing. Two year olds can be very sweet, but any "sharing" at this age is basically an illusion. My son's play dates regularly have meltdowns where one toddler sweetly hands a toy to another child, only to 10 seconds later snatch it out of their hands and scream because the child was holding their toy. The kid's morals are basically primordial goo, and the parents and godparents have to slowly turn the goo into a functional values system. Two year olds are just starting to play with other kids as opposed to just playing alongside other kids. Learning to wait, be patient, be generous.. for this age, these are all concepts that are a long slog to teach through micro-lessons each day. This year will provide many opportunities to teach the child these things, but not as "lessons" so much as just complimenting kind behavior, dealing with tantrums, etc. A long slog, indeed.

That said, you have to start somewhere, and there are certainly gifts you can provide to help! A board book about sharing might be a good idea for this age. Blocks are a good toy that they can play with another person to build something together and learn about taking turns. My son loves to take turns with his dad shooting hoops as a "game" - if he starts to hog the ball we explain he needs to share, etc.
posted by gatorae at 8:25 AM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

Just some thoughts-

For the moment, maybe focus on the idea of being a helper/pitching in? She can help in the house (eg, by sweeping with a toy broom, by carrying her dish to the sink, etc), you could bring her along to short volunteer activities like cleaning up litter at the playground, that sort of thing. Where she doesn't have to give up something of her own, but gets some fun and attention from contributing/pro-social actions.

When you play with her, you could introduce play scenarios about how eg, one stuffed animal gives the other stuffed animal a present, or helps the other to reach up to a high shelf, or whatever... just consistently modeling that sharing, giving, helping are major components of life.

You can also help her to think of presents to give to her parents/sibs, like "we could make a card for Mommy, she would like that, what color would she like?"... Thinking about what someone else likes is a developmental stage she may not be at yet, but she'll get there.

There are ton of children's books on the helping/sharing theme that might be better for a little one. I agree that the Giving Tree is a sort of heavy and odd take on the idea of giving (where giving means utterly destroying yourself for the other person).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:35 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's a big commitment, but maybe you could sponsor a child in a third-world country and involve her in that?

I decided to sponsor a child in Zimbabwe and while this wasn't my original intention, it has blown my daughter's mind (she was 3 when I started this). She loves writing letters and sending packages to the little girl, who is her age. When I signed up I got a picture of the child and my daughter noted that she looked sad. I explained in a simple and gentle way that some people don't have enough money to buy clothes and food and toys and that since our family has more money than we need, we are going to send some to her family. It was her first introduction to the idea that some people don't have enough. It's made her happy and proud. And when we send little dollar store things like stickers, she feels a tiny bit covetous of that stuff - so she has to come to terms with the act of giving things away, even though you might rather keep them for yourself, because someone else needs them more than she does.
posted by kitcat at 9:14 AM on March 19, 2015

I wanted to say as well - I think the precursor to generosity is empathy. At two, empathy is not a given; I think it has to be fostered as well, so you might consider that. At that age I was pointing out other children crying and saying things like "Aw, that little boy is sad. Why do you think he's crying? What do you think would make him feel better?" (And so that she wouldn't worry, I would also say "I bet his Mom/Dad will help him and make him feel all better).
posted by kitcat at 9:23 AM on March 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nthing the point that for a kid turning two, generosity is expecting a LOT. They don't really have a sense that other people have internal lives yet. Finding ways to build empathy and sharing skills will help get her there.
posted by mishaps at 9:28 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think your goal is important and amazing.

I think tying it into her birthday is not the best strategy at any age (although I know lots of kids who have spontaneously made that decision themselves, having donation or volunteer themed birthdays, around 8 or 9.) The basic birthday party rituals already come with a time-honored balance between the child playing host, giving loot bags, writing thank-yous etc., and their day to be the recipient of generosity, which is a part of understanding the whole balance.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:44 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd suggest looking at the books and resources put out by the Me to We foundation headed by the Kielburgers. It's more advanced than this year probably but there are some great books on raising giving children that might interest you..
posted by five_cents at 10:39 AM on March 19, 2015

At this age, it needs to be very concrete. Giving and generosity don't have to involved "the poor" - we can be generous and give to people at home. I would help her make a card for her parents that says "Thank you for being my Mommy (or Daddy) and have her hand it to them with a big hug.

If you are with her, model being helpful to her (you need help picking up toy. I will help you. I like helping you. See how much fun it is when we work together.) and then later, create an opportunity for her to help you. I am carrying these clothes. Can you help me by carrying the shirt? That's great. I like having people help me and you are super helper.

If you aren't with her, maybe you could send a present and include an extra that she can physical give to someone else in her family. You will have to let the parents know ahead of time so they can help orchestrate. "What's in the this box? Three cookies from your godmother! Look she wrote a letter - it says here are three cookies, one for you and one for you to give to Mommy and one for you to give to Daddy (or other Mommy or whatever). Ok, baby. Give this cookie to me. Yay, you are so generous, thank you for the cookie. Now give this (other parent) Yay. And look, this one is for you. Your godmother is generous to send cookies to all of us."
posted by metahawk at 11:14 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My grandfather brought a small bell to our house when we were children. He called it "the generosity bell." It was for us, not our parents. He explained that we could ring it to remind ourselves or each other to be generous—or when there was conflict.

It was a token of empathy and mindfulness.

Whether he knew it or not, the gift introduced a conceptual element into the household, which could evolve with our ability to understand.

Even a very young child can have a talk with you about the bell. Perhaps it can live on a mantle piece or shelf in the family's common area.
posted by xaryts at 11:20 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

For a two-year old, I agree that reinforcing concepts like sharing are developmentally appropriate moreso than some of the other suggestions that may be better for an older child (like donating to charity).

My son loves the books in the Hello Genius series (we have Little Monkey Calms Down, Little Elephant Listens, and Little Tiger Picks Up). I haven't read the one about sharing but the others are so good I thought I'd make the suggestion: Little Lion Shares.
posted by JenMarie at 12:21 PM on March 19, 2015

I agree, at age two, modeling behaviour is how you can teach her best. And also yes empathy comes before generosity in the development.
You don't even have to hammer it in verbally and become all preachy about it. If she is with you and you yourself are helpful and generous, she will pick it up. My son did - i am the kind of person that always gets asked the way, etc, or will help someone in the grocery store get something from atop shelf ( am tall), etc.

So when he was about 3 yrs old, one day he really surprised me by saying (after yet another tourist had asked me for the way) Mom, you always help people, right? And he is himself quick to help (if in the mood, now he is 6 he os sometimes to distracted to notice) whcih I put down to the fact he sees me do it.

Also, from very early on he has seen me give coins to street people (yes, I know this is a controversial topic and you may not want to do that) and I give him coins to give to beggars and buskers, of which we have plenty where we live. These days he will ask me for a coin to give, and I explan that I give one person a day, no more (in our area you can easily meet between 5 and 10 per day depending on where we shop).

Also, we give regularly to a man who begs daily just outside our regular grocers, and since I found out he has small children at home, about my son's age and younger, we bring him nice clothes he outgrew or new clothes he never wears which are given to us, and some of the toys he gets for Christmas. He really does get too much being an only child and lots of elderly relatives who dote on him and give him things he is too old for or already has. Some things we get in triplicate, believe it or not. And because we see the man every day, he knows him and is fine with giving him stuff for his children (mostly brand new and packaged). I let him choose what to give away and he has become generous because he sees the man's face light up. He tells me mom, he was happy to get this from us, and I say yes. that is all really, no lecturing required.

I think at this age, just turning 2, you need to have a situation that is immediate, not someone far away they never met. Sharing does not come natural if they do not see it in daily life, and I believe should not be forced or artificial but modelled.

Maybe you are active at a food bank or soup kitchen, or church charity work and she can join you there to sort food stuff into boxes or clothes? Take her for 30 to 45 minutes, or however long her attention span lasts, so she can see you sharing. Tell her why you do it.
posted by 15L06 at 2:36 PM on March 19, 2015

I think that it’s lovely that this is important to you, but you might need to slow your roll a bit. Your god daughter, not even 2 yet, is a very young toddler. This stage of her life is, by necessity, incredibly inwardly focused as she expends a great deal of her physical and emotional energy in establishing herself as a separate person and gaining control over her physical self and learning ways to influence her environment. She’s learned to walk and is learning to talk in longer and more complex sentences. She’s learning to be more efficient about getting food into her, and may be soon learning to control her bowels.

It’s why you often see kids her age engage in “parallel play”- they will play alongside each other, often doing the same thing, but often not really engaging with each other at all.

It’s why I think a lot of the well-meaning suggestions will really fall flat- she will absolutely not understand the concept of poor people or helping the community, or anything whatsoever about “The Giving Tree”, let alone ‘buying’ a toy for a stranger.

I think the best thing you can do is just, as others have suggested, model sharing, generosity, good manners, and helping. Don’t worry about trying to use her birthday to teach her moral lessons. Get her something fun, and hopefully her parents will prompt her to thank you- there’s one more good behavior modeled.

When she gets a bit older, then it’s time for her to sit up and take notice that there are other people in this (her)world and that she has a part to play in it all.

My own godmother always took me out for a special day in December for lunch and then the highlight- shopping for Christmas presents for my parents. She presented it so wonderfully (won’t it be SO FUN when Daddy opens this coffee mug with ROBOTS on it!!!! I bet he will smile SO big!, etc.) , so that I was always wildly excited for our excursion.
posted by aviatrix at 4:19 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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