HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Teaching children to give

Sharing the experience of giving can be the most rewarding present you give your child this holiday season.

By GreatSchools Staff

It can be tough to teach children the value of giving in a season when they're surrounded by messages about the value of getting. Here are five ways to start:

Start small when the kids are small.

Your young child might be happy to help bake cookies for a friend but end up wanting to keep the gift herself. Plan for this by baking enough cookies to keep and enough cookies to give. Young children need help in learning to share.

Teach your child that he doesn't need money to give.

Help your child make gift certificates good for "one free car wash" or "breakfast in bed" that he can give to others in the family.

Involve your child in selecting the gift.

You may think that donating to cancer research is important, but your child who is an animal lover may be more interested in making sure the dogs at the humane society have an extra treat at the holidays. Help her find a way to give the gift she feels is important.

Be a role model.

Volunteer your family's time at a soup kitchen or senior center. Gather small-size toiletries, such as toothpaste and shampoo, and pack them in decorated gift bags to take to a homeless shelter. Ask your child if he'll help you baby-sit for a neighbor's toddler so she can do her shopping or help you rake the leaves for an elderly friend.

Personalize giving.

It's faster for busy parents to write a check to a charity, but it has little impact on a child who can't see where the money is going or imagine the people who benefit. Delivering canned goods to a food bank is more meaningful than dropping a check in the mail. Your family could "adopt" a needy family through a community organization, choose the gifts and wrap them.

Feeling too busy to organize an activity like this? Author Ellen Sabin has suggestions that can work for the most time-challenged parents. Sabin wrote The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving, an interactive workbook to help 6- to 11-year-olds discover the joy of giving and their power to make a difference. Sabin also offers free tools and guides for parents, teachers and religious educators to use with her book.

Sabin suggests having a family conversation about what you're thankful for. That will help your child realize that what she values may be missing in other people's lives.

Sabin also offers three activities to try. "These things don't take huge amounts of time. They just take a few moments of thoughtfulness."

  • Start a tradition in which family members set aside one of their gifts to give to someone less fortunate.
  • Think of someone without a family - a soldier, a distant relative, a friend in the hospital - and write a letter as a family to make the person feel loved and included during the holidays.
  • Talk about beginning the new year with a family giving box. Everyone can regularly add a small amount of money to the box to contribute to a group or cause the family agrees to support.

Giving gives children a sense of self-esteem and pride, says Sabin. "Giving is addictive. It gets in your blood. It makes you realize that you and your actions matter."

Comments from readers

"very touching, meaningful and effective ideas.... "
"I am a single mother of 3 kids, I am not going to be able to give them a christmas this year "2011" If anyone is intrested in Adopting my family for the Holidays please email me! I am very worried I am not going to know what to say to these children who wake up Christmas Morning to nothing! PLEASE do not cut me down it is hard enough to ask for help! Thank you, Jennie "
"Thanks for the wonderful tips! When we put our time, thought, and effort into our gifts, the process makes the gift and the gift-giving all the more worthwhile; not to mention 'attitude of gratitude' on the part of both the giver and the recipient! What great ideas!"
"I am grateful to have had an amazing experience at my daughter's school this holiday season - an experience that allowed me to give back to the school while teaching the children about the spirit of giving. Children may attend my daughter's school, Detroit Country Day School, from the age of three through high school, thus our school spans four campuses. Our school as a whole chose to help over 250 needy children this year by purchasing new toys and other items for them. I coordinated the event for my daughter's campus and was overwhelmed by the generosity of the students and their families. Even though participation was optional, nearly 90 % of the children chose to purchase an item for a child in need. I heard the children saying to each other, 'It feels better to give than to receive' on many occasions. These third, fourth and fifth graders really got it! My heartfelt thanks to the students of DCDS for giving me the chance to be apart of this event. "
"Volunteering my family to soup kitchen is something not just me but several families have wanted to do. But here is a catch. Kids who are in elementary and middle school are not allowed to volunteer for reasons I cannot understand. The other thing that I have noticed is that there does not seem to be too many soup kitchens in Loudoun County, VA. I do not want to give money to some charity that may or may not keep a percentage of what is given toward their 'overhead' cost. Please visit to go over the various 'emergency shelter' programs or 'Soup Kitchens'. Most ask that we contribute towards our 'tax deductible' dollars to their worthy cause. Money can buy most things, but not the feeling of giving. If anyone has any ideas on how we can contribute labor as well as money please email me. I and several other families would actually want to experience the act of giving with not just money but our own labor. "
"These are wonderful suggestions for the holidays. There are so many ways to help, big and small. Teaching our children to give their time and efforts to help others all through the year can make for a more peaceful world. Thank you."
"Thank you for these tools and tips to help me help my child understand the meaning of giving. I enjoyed reading this article and I know my son and I will benefit from it. "
"I really appreciate the tips. It really helps us with the upbringing of our kids. here's a website i learned about on msn my kids love the materials. they've been well reviewed."
"Last Christmas I bought my two young sons something called 'The Giving Box'. It is a small tin box that they use to collect money all year. Before Christmas, we go to the store and buy a gift for someone less fortunate (with all the pennies and nickels and quarters that they have saved). They each pick out a toy and go to the cashier with their box and pay for the toy and then drop it off to a toy collection for Christmas. It is a way of teaching them that everyone has something to give, no matter how small or large, it will make a difference in someone's life (and in theirs). This tin coin box also came with a book explaining its purpose that we read together. This was developed by Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood)to 'create a tradition of giving with your children'. "
"Children must learn to give at any economical level and at the earliest of age. Giving is not always about money. We must teach our children that giving and sharing kindness, a hug, a smile, respect, time, talents are free gifts that expand the heart of the giver and the receiver."
"For the last several years, we have selected 3-4 charities to support with a financial donation. Each kid picks one organization that's important to them. Then we write up a description with illustrations of what we have decided to support that year. That becomes our holiday presents for the adults in the family who don't need more 'things.' They like the creativity of the kids' drawings along with their words of why they chose the particular organizations."
"Excellent article. I sponsor some children abroad and they love their care packages that are sent to them."
"Thank you! This article gave me some ideas for this Christmas. I've been wanting to change our 'normal' Christmas tradition and teach my children the true meaning of Christmas. Starting this Christmas, we are going apply the principle of 'the gift of giving'. We want to start locally and find a couple of families from the hurricane victims and give to their children. My children will be giving their gifts (from us, friends, and families) to these children. We are not sure how to begin this process... does anyone have any suggessions? We're looking for families in the Denver areas. Thanks!"