Nurturing Children to Live Generously

This article first appeared in “Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation” magazine which is published annually by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center. The full magazine (chock-full of great ideas) is available for purchase on their website.

Today’s culture can be toxic for children and other living things. If we build our values on the “put-downs” and sound bites of social media and incidences of daily violence that permeate the news, we might lose hope in what the future could hold for our children. How do we nurture a generous spirit in children when it would seem the world is about self-aggrandizement, winning, and having the most toys?

While we may think children are born as empty vessels waiting for family, teachers, and (yes) the church to fill them with love, knowledge, dreams, values, and a purpose, we know that they are already born with a capacity to know God and experience love. As caretakers of our children, it is our responsibility to nurture that which already exists, by providing an environment where their desire to be loved and part of a community is openly welcomed, acting as role models in what it means to be a generous, loving person made in the image of God.

We are born for sympathy and compassion. In a University of Oregon study[1], economist Bill Harbaugh and psychologist Ulrich Mayr found that charitable generosity activated the reward center of the brain, indicating that our brains are naturally made for kindness. Furthering this research are studies on compassionate meditation such as the one conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which illustrated that through the repeated practice of mindful generosity, we can increase empathetic responses to others.[2]

These studies support the belief that creating a kind, welcoming environment––whether that be in our schools, churches, or homes––are essential to building a more tolerant, open-minded society that welcomes differences. This doesn’t just apply to children; empathy, understanding, and kindness are valuable beyond the sandbox.

We need to ask ourselves questions like, “Why do we give?” and “Do we show kindness?” and “How am I modeling generosity for my children?” Put simply, our children are watching, listening, and learning from what we do––and don’t do. So what things can we do more intentionally to help nurture that generosity in children?

At home:

  • Children of all ages can be involved in the family giving process. Do your children know to whom you give and how you come to that decision?
  • Children of all ages can give their time and energy in acts of service. Take your kids with you to deliver a meal to a needy family, visit a nursing home, or rake leaves for someone who is homebound. In this way, they can learn to give even before they have money of their own.
  • When children are old enough to have money of their own (whether from allowance or employment), parents can train them to give regularly and generously to the church or a charity of their choice. Teach them about money using the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 principle to “share, save, spend.”[3]
  • Wendy Claire Barrie in her book Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents (Church Publishing, 2016) suggests that families take on one of the many meaningful Shabbat customs (lighting candles, giving thanks for the bread and the wine, talking only of happy things) at special family dinners. Before everyone comes to the table, they empty their pockets of coins from the week to put in a tzedakah The Hebrew root of this word means justice, and the money collected is set aside for giving to a cause or an organization that is decided on as a family.
  • Offer children chances to give voluntarily to projects that excite them. Parents should look for opportunities to expose them to local ministries and people in need, explaining that they are free to give where they feel Jesus might direct them. The opportunities for children to practice giving are abundant; you must determine which ones suit your children best.

At church:

  • Off your children stewardship pledge cards designed for them.
  • Acknowledge children’s contributors to your mission and ministry with a thank-you note even it is their talent instead of their treasure that they are giving.
  • Invite children and youth to be part of the stewardship/budget process.
  • Offer intergenerational opportunities for mission, such as Angel Trees during Advent and projects such as Stop Hunger Now (now called Rise Against Hunger).

If anything, what is occurring in our world today should spur us on to consider how we can be more intentionally and purposefully generous, not because we have to, but because God so generously lavished God’s love on us. And to do it in a way that let’s our children see that being kind and generous is who we are, not what we do, while inviting them to be part of the giving alongside us.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/science/19tier.html?_r=0 and http://pages.uoregon.edu/thinking/altruism.html

[2] http://centerhealthyminds.org/join-the-movement/well-being-tips-for-children-and-their-families

[3] See Nathan Dungan’s excellent work at http://sharesavespend.com.

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