Lessons in Charitable Giving
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Lessons in Charitable Giving

Conversations, modeling behavior and hands-on actions can help teach children about benevolence and compassion.

Cyndy Mamalian’s three children are collecting gifts for the homeless this holiday season. She hopes the project will help them understand the impact that giving can have on others.

Cyndy Mamalian’s three children are collecting gifts for the homeless this holiday season. She hopes the project will help them understand the impact that giving can have on others. Photo courtesy of Cyndy Mamalian

Interfaith Works Holiday Shoebox Project

Help neighbors in need by decorating and

filling shoeboxes with essentials and gift items to spread holiday cheer.

This can be a fun activity for families and groups, large or small. Here are guidelines and suggestions:

  • Start with an empty shoebox, including box lid
  • Cover both box and lid in holiday wrapping paper
  • Write an encouraging note to tuck inside
  • Fill it with suggested items:

$10 gift card (grocery store, Target)

SmarTrip cards

Travel-sized toiletries like lip balm, deodorant, shaving cream, new crew socks (men’s or women’s), pocket calendars, mini-flashlight and batteries (AA or AAA), scarf, gloves, mittens, hat, mini-notepads and mini-pens

Deliver shoe boxes to Community Vision program, 8210 Dixon Avenue, Silver Spring, Md., 301-585-4471. For more information contact Yvonne Esipila at yesipila@iworksmc.org or 301-315-1097.

Matthew Mamalian’s holiday shopping list included some items that might seem atypical for a 12-year-old middle school student: shampoo, socks, soap and a few snacks. He, along with several friends from his Sunday school class, packed the items in shoeboxes wrapped with holiday paper and tucked a handwritten note of encouragement inside each box.

“We were all laughing and having fun packing them,” he said. “We also learned that there are people who really need these things because they don’t have a lot else.”

The project was part of Interfaith Works’ holiday giving program, an effort by the local nonprofit organization to meet the needs of the homeless. The holiday season can be a time for children to learn the principles of benevolence, say child development experts. Involving children in charitable activities, modeling altruistic behavior and making a link between compassion and a higher power are all effective ways parents can teach their children the value of giving to the less fortunate.

“Children need to have empathy modeled for them and they need a script to follow or ideas for carrying out charitable acts.”

— Christine Pegorraro Schull, Ph.D., Northern Virginia Community College

“Children need to have empathy modeled for them and they need a script to follow or ideas for carrying out charitable acts,” said Christine Pegorraro Schull, Ph.D., professor of Early Childhood Education at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. “Children aspire to be kind and to be good citizens, but they don’t necessarily know how to do these things,”

Involving Matthew and his siblings in philanthropic efforts through Potomac Presbyterian Church is one of the ways that their mother, Cyndy Mamalian, makes a connection between gratitude, charity and a higher power. “I think it’s important for them to think beyond themselves and live out their faith,” she said. “You need to put your faith into action, and that is about caring for other people.”

Janet Dunlop, Matthew’s Sunday school teacher and a member of the Mission Committee at Potomac Presbyterian Church, melds volunteer projects with class discussions to teach her students about gratitude and charity. This holiday season, as the middle-school aged children clipped wrapping paper and tied ribbons around shoeboxes filled with deodorant, toothpaste, snacks and other essentials for the homeless, she gave them a description of those who are on the receiving end of their project.

“Many young people growing up in Potomac don’t have much experience with homelessness,” said Dunlop. “When my husband and I arrive at the shelter with these boxes, the people there are so happy to receive them. So, this is also about helping the children see another aspect of life and trying to instill in them a life-long ideal of service.”

Charitable giving for adults often means donating old clothes at the end of the tax year or writing a check to a nonprofit organization. However, children might find it difficult to understand how these abstract actions make a difference. That’s why psychologists and educators recommend giving children first-hand experience in caring for others.

Jenny Trope, Ph.D. and her children raised money to purchase grocery store gift cards that they are distributing to homeless men and women they encounter this winter. “It gives the kids a glimpse of what it’s like to be alone, hungry and stuck outside when it’s cold,” said Trope, who is also a marriage and family therapist based in Arlington.

Such hands-on projects, coupled with a conversation about why it’s important to take action to aid people in need of a helping hand, could drive home the message. “Children aspire to be kind and to be good citizens, but they don’t necessarily know how to do these things,” said Schull.

A study by the United Nations Foundation and the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found that talking to children about giving is highly effective for encouraging philanthropy, and increases a child's inclination to give by 20 percent.

"Conversations are critical. Talking about giving in combination with modeling is what actually increases children's giving,” said Debra J. Mesch, Ph.D., director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. “We … know that these conversations need to be focused on why and how giving … makes an impact on individuals in need, rather than simply talk that is more general, such as giving is the right thing to do."

The dialogue can include concrete examples of how a charitable action will benefit others, say mental health experts. “Around the holidays when you’re struggling to survive, when you’ve lost everything and every decision you make is about meeting your absolute, basic needs, like how you’re going to take a shower, it’s a nice surprise to get a wrapped box of soaps, toothpaste, socks, snacks and a personal note,” said Nikki Stanaitis, LCSW-C of Interfaith Works. “It makes a person feel human and gives them the sense of normalcy that we all want.”

Acts of charity displayed year-round can lead to life-long habits of philanthropy. “Don’t reserve donating and volunteering for the holidays. By making it a way of life, you’re sharing your value system about giving and helping others with your children,” said Trope.