Let them choose their own causes
You may be on the board of one organization or another. Don't push them on your kids. Instead, understand that when children can focus on things they find interesting, they'll be more apt to stay with it. So present them with some charitable or volunteering opportunities that they'll enjoy or at the very least understand. An important thing to consider is that, while natural instinct makes you want to shield your children from the wrongs of the world, that's not always the best approach. "There are sensitive, age-appropriate ways to introduce kids to issues in the world around them so that they are portrayed not as unsolvable and scary, but as opportunities to make a difference," says Ellen Sabin, author of The Giving Book, which was written for kids.
The fact is, you know your children, so adjust explanations to their knowledge base and your comfort level. If you're supporting a project to help the troops, you may not want to go into all the grimy details of the war, but you can say that people are protecting our country and you want to do something to make their lives a little brighter. Likewise, the ins and outs of global warming and the environment can be over a child's head, but explaining that litter is bad for the park where they play will bring the cause home. Then, make a trip to that park for a cleanup.
Make giving a family affair
Include your children in your decision-making process, too, so that they can start to see that there is a clear and thoughtful manner in which you make contributions to charity. Explaining why you're choosing not to support organizations that have pitched to you is an equally important lesson. Volunteering as a family is also recommended. Not only does this give you a chance to spend time together, but it is also perhaps the best way to show your children the importance of giving back. Children naturally mimic their parent's actions, so they'll be much more inclined to get involved if you do, too.
Incorporate giving into activities that your child looks forward to, like birthdays or playtime with friends
There are virtually unlimited ways to do it: Maybe for your kid's birthday every year, he or she can choose one gift to donate to a local children's hospital. An even better idea is to engage all the children at the birthday party or playdate to double the effect. For an arts and crafts activity, Sabin suggests having them make "giving certificates" with promises of things they will do to help others (for example, giving one to Mom that says they'll help out the next time she volunteers). Another option is to have all guests bring a donation to the birthday boy or girl's chosen cause, such as a clothing or toy drive. Whatever you do, weave it into the fun of the party to get the best results.
Show them the payoff
Almost as important as the giving process is talking about it afterward to explain who you've benefited and how. Often, children will go through the motions of volunteering without knowing why they're doing it. So show them pictures, mementos or the finished product—anything that will explain the effect of their efforts. By the same token, make sure that the child feels appreciated for making these contributions. Children don't get the tax deduction or other tangible benefits of giving that adults often receive, so their reward is based on your words. Let them know that you're proud of them and tell them exactly why, using specific examples. It'll make them want to give or volunteer again—and soon.
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