Let me begin by saying that there is not one right answer. Just like our kids don’t come with manuals, there is no set of instructions for raising philanthropically-minded children. I wish there was because then it would be so much easier.
Some say it’s a good idea to introduce the concept of tzedakah as early as possible, that life lessons are learned when the children are young. Others say it’s better to wait until a child is ready to take on the responsibility from a place of maturity.
You have to decide the right path for your family, but I believe that engaging the next generation should be an ongoing process that is constantly reinforced – not a one-time event.
I do want to dispel one myth. Many people think family philanthropy requires having a fund or foundation in their name. But, that’s simply not true. Whether your children are five, 15 or 25, there are age appropriate ways to involve them in your family’s charitable giving.
My first piece of advice is easy. Talk to your children about your own charitable giving. Most people assume their family knows why they give to particular organizations. I encourage you to take the time to tell them why. And, tell them why you want them to be charitable as well.
The next step is to involve your kids in the process. There are simple ways to empower your children to take ownership of their giving. For example, in one family I know, the money the young sons contribute to the tzedakah box at Hebrew school comes jointly from the parents and the boys themselves.
You can also sit down with your children and ask them to identify a problem they want to fix or a cause in which they are passionate. If they are very young, you might give them a few options, such as donating holiday gifts for at-risk children or buying winter coats for people who don’t have them. The more you involve your children in the process of giving back, the more they’ll be invested in what you are doing. Allow them to choose the organizations. They’ll feel more connected.
If you have teenage children, encourage them to volunteer for a cause that is important to them. Or, take one day a month to do something in the community together. Jewish Volunteer Connection, a program of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, can help identify the right placement for you and your family to get involved.
I know that college students are even harder to engage than teenagers, but there are ways to talk to them about charitable giving. As you gather around the Thanksgiving table in a couple of months, talk about what you are thankful for in your own lives and identify organizations to which you would like to donate your time and/or money. You might try asking the following questions to start the conversation:
- What is your favorite organization and why?
- If you could solve any problem, what would it be?
- If you had $1 million to give away, how would you do it?
And, if you will be traveling in the next few months, consider using your vacation as an opportunity to give back. One family that I know visits a Jewish community whenever they travel and spends the day volunteering there together.
The new year has just begun, and we are all busy with myriad commitments. Yet, I encourage you to start a conversation with your kids about tzedakah and involve them in the process. I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.