On Thanksgiving, many Americans are preoccupied with turkeys, parades, football games, and even Black Friday sales. It seems that over time, this holiday has become more about getting things—whether that’s food, entertainment, or bargains—than about giving thanks for what we already have. (And really, that’s just a reflection of our society’s general gimme-gimme-gimme attitude.) If you’re like most parents, you don’t want your kids to grow up focused solely on themselves, concerned only with the latest video game or with how they can get their way. You want them to feel genuine gratitude for the blessings they have and to demonstrate thought and concern for others.
According to Todd Patkin, there’s no better time than the Thanksgiving holiday to help your kids become less me-focused and more thoughtful.
“In general, I don’t believe that kids act selfishly because they genuinely don’t care about others—it’s more that they aren’t really sure how to help others and give back, because they aren’t being taught,” asserts Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “It’s crucial for adults—especially those of us who are parents—to start early when it comes to raising our kids with a passion for philanthropy, and Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity.”
Patkin speaks from experience—giving back to others, whether it’s in his own Boston “backyard”—near the site of the first Thanksgiving, incidentally—or in a foreign country, has become an integral part of his life. Many of the organizations with which he’s involved reach out to young people, and he says he’s amazed by how readily these children and teenagers embrace the principles behind selfless service.
“I’m convinced that the ‘me’ generation isn’t as egocentric at heart as it’s made out to be,” he confirms. “However, kids do need to be guided in a positive direction, and often, that starts in the home. Parents are the greatest influencers when it comes to developing their kids’ habits and behaviors—including cultivating a desire to give and to help others. If they see you giving back as a part of your regular life, they’ll learn that behavior and carry it with them into adulthood.”
Ready to help your child take the first steps from selfishness to selflessness? Then read on for ten ways that parents can get their children geared up for giving back:
Explain philanthropy to your kids.
Before you and your kids get into the proverbial trenches, it’s important to first help them realize that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money, and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. It’s important, especially when kids are young, to start with the very basics of why it’s important to give. For example, you might ask them, “If you did not have enough food to eat or warm clothes to wear on a cold day, wouldn’t you want someone (even if you did not know them) to help you so you got the food and warmth you needed?”
“Kids will usually do what you say they should while they’re under your roof, but they won’t continue to pursue philanthropy throughout their lives unless they understand the ‘why’ behind it,” Patkin confirms. “Explain the charity work you do to your child. Tell her why you do it and who it helps, and keep an open dialogue going in your household to help her understand what’s going on. The more questions your child has (and you answer), the better grasp she’ll have on the concept.”
It’s never too early to start (don’t wait until your kids are “old enough”).
Empathy is a concept that children can learn from a very early age, so look for and take advantage of teachable moments. You can start with something as basic as encouraging small children to share with one another. Ask them to consider how they’d feel if they didn’t have a toy, and how their feelings would change if a friend gave them one, for example.
“You can find ways for children to volunteer their time at any age, all year round,” says Patkin. “Smaller children can help to sort recycling or contribute to decorating posters for a bake sale or other event. Once your kids get a little older, they can donate a portion of their holiday or birthday money to a charity, or they can choose a toy to donate to needy children. You can also involve your children in philanthropy through family-wide activities like sponsoring an underprivileged child during the holidays and helping to buy his back-to-school supplies, or going as a group to visit nursing home residents. This year, you might even volunteer to work at a soup kitchen before or after your own Thanksgiving meal.”
Make it a part of everyday life.
As most parents know, you’ll probably never have as much time or money as you’d like, so waiting for “just a little more” of either is futile. When it comes to giving back, there is no better time to start than now, using what you already have! You don’t need to possess unlimited time or money to get involved—you can find smaller, simpler ways to make helping others a part of your everyday routine.
“When many people think of philanthropy, they picture big-money donations and orphanages founded in third-world countries—and those things certainly qualify,” Patkin acknowledges. “However, the everyday efforts of ‘ordinary’ people can also have an incredible impact. Just remember that since parents need to model good behaviors, you’ll need to walk the talk that you’re giving to your kids. The next time you’re grocery shopping with your children, for example, buy some extra canned goods and drop them off at a food bank on the way home in preparation for the Thanksgiving rush. Then encourage your kids to be giving during their own everyday tasks, whether that means sharing art supplies or helping clean up.”
Get kids involved in the process.
The more you let your children become involved in the philanthropy process, the more they’ll be invested in what you’re doing. Bring your kids in from the beginning by allowing them to help choose which organizations the family volunteers for or donates to. They’ll feel more connected to the cause, and even the youngest members can be involved, even if it just means tagging along.
“It’s a good idea to sit down with your kids and ask them to identify a problem that they want to fix,” suggests Patkin. “If they’re very young, you might give them a few options to choose from, such as feeding people who are hungry or getting winter coats for people who don’t have them. Then you can all work on finding a corresponding organization. You might also think about volunteering to organize a charity project for your child’s classroom in order to kick off a ‘giving gang’—a group of peers doing charity work together. This will encourage the type of positive peer pressure the world needs more of!”
Reinforce the value of a random act of kindness.
Giving back is not always about a charity organization, a monetary donation, or volunteering—in other words, things you schedule. Kids need to understand that having a heart for others, at its core, is a way of life, not a series of appointments on your calendar. Show them that helping someone else and not expecting anything in return can happen anytime, anywhere. (You might even use the original Thanksgiving story to illustrate the value of reaching out to others, especially those who are different from us.) In fact, it’s often the small everyday acts that give us the biggest returns in terms of fulfillment and happiness, and they are things that are easy for kids to recognize and take action on.
“Guide your kids by pointing out opportunities for them to take the initiative in engaging in random acts of kindness,” instructs Patkin. “When you’re out shopping, encourage them to help an elderly lady load her groceries into her car, and then offer to return her cart to the corral. Likewise, prompt your child to hold the door for a woman pushing a baby stroller, or whisper that he might offer the last piece of pizza to his younger brother. Soon, your kids will hopefully be taking the initiative all on their own!”
Understand (and explain) that philanthropy is not one-size-fits-all.
Kids naturally have more aptitude for some activities than others. The child who’s a natural artist may be stymied and bored by the intricacies of baseball—and the same principle is true when it comes to giving back. It’s important to tailor philanthropic work to a child’s personality and interests. For example, you wouldn’t take your daughter to the animal shelter if she were afraid of dogs larger than a throw pillow!
“Just as the projects individuals take on aren’t one-size-fits-all, neither are the needs of the people these projects work to benefit,” Patkin points out. “It’s important to explain this state of affairs to your child, especially if she is younger. Talk with her about how different people and situations have different needs. Some might want a hot meal, for example, while others may want someone to listen to their problems. Some places need clothes while others benefit more from monetary donations, and so on. Help her to understand why it’s important for her to match her talents, passions, and beliefs to these needs.”
There’s no substitute for real-world experience.
Encouraging your kids to earmark a percentage of their allowances or to donate some of their lesser-used toys to charity is a good start—but don’t stop there. If your children can see where their donations are going and how they’re actually helping others, the giving experience will be much more real. Consider taking a family trip to visit recipient organizations so that your children can see where the money goes.
“Visiting charitable organizations in person tends to take giving to the next level,” Patkin shares. “Whether you’re seven or seventy, you’re much more likely to stay involved in philanthropy if you can see how your efforts are actually making the world a better place. In order to keep the memories fresh, make a scrapbook of your child’s volunteering experiences. Also, you can look for real-world philanthropic opportunities that connect to your child’s interests and activities. If he has a school reading list, for example, you might tie projects into the books he’s reading. If one of them is about dogs, volunteer at the animal shelter!”
Make it a family affair.
When you give back as a family, your kids will see Mom and Dad as role models. Bonus: You’ll all grow closer to each other because of this shared experience. Commit as a family to spend two days per month working with a charity or doing something to help others—even if that just means helping out elderly neighbors or volunteering at the church yard sale. You might also work together to raise money for a walk, fundraiser, or other project, then walk together on race day, or go together as a family to present the money you’ve raised.
“As with any change, start small and take baby steps,” encourages Patkin. “While you may not be ready to give up your family vacation for a volunteer trip, you can eat in one night and use the money you saved on eating out to help feed the homeless. After projects or events, always be sure to have a family meeting where you sit down with your kids to talk about what you’ve done, how it made them feel, and how it helped others. Helping your kids to acknowledge the accomplishment and the good feelings associated with philanthropy will encourage them to continue their involvement. Again, I encourage you to kick off this initiative during the Thanksgiving holiday. There are plenty of organizations that would welcome a family’s worth of helping hands.”
Help your kids to focus on how good it feels to give back.
Everyone likes to feel good, and kids are certainly no exception! When they feel good about something, they—like you—will want to do it again. In fact, that good feeling will be the impetus that keeps your kids motivated to continue helping others even after you’ve relinquished oversight of their daily schedules. Help them to focus on how fulfilled they are when they are doing something to help others.
“Zero in on the warm fuzzies by talking about the excitement your kids are feeling on the way to donate that box of toys, or how happy they were when they were thanked for serving food at the local soup kitchen,” Patkin suggests. “Even more importantly, talk about those experiences fairly often to remind your children of how wonderful they were. Helping kids to acknowledge their philanthropic accomplishments and the good feelings associated with them will really encourage them to get hooked on helping!”
Make sure that your expectations are realistic.
At the end of the day, kids are still kids. You can’t expect them to always want to donate their toys or to be able to sit still and pay attention through every single event or presentation. (Be honest with yourself—sometimes your own attention wanders, too!) Be conscious of your children’s ages and capabilities, and (without being too quick to exclude them from an activity or event that might not be “fun” from start to finish) keep in mind that your budding philanthropists are still kids.
“In other words, don’t let yourself become frustrated or discouraged if your children don’t immediately embrace the idea of volunteering on a Saturday afternoon—persevere even if they continue to voice their preference for staying at home for weeks to come,” Patkin advises. “Any good behavior or habit takes time to cultivate, so be very aware of how you address situations when your kids act less than perfect. You want them to relate their experience as a positive one, not one in which they let you down or were punished.”
“Ultimately, raising children who understand the value of giving back—and whose lives reflect that knowledge—is one of the most philanthropically minded things parents can do, and this holiday provides the perfect opportunity,” Patkin concludes. “Don’t forget that Thanksgiving isn’t just about ‘thanking’—it’s about giving as well. After all, the original celebrants gave their food and friendship to one another, and helping others is an American legacy I’d like to see continue. And from a parental point of view, you’ll be amazed at how rewarding it is to raise philanthropists, and how much stronger giving back makes your relationship with your kids.”
Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.