Teaching Our Children to Give

by David I. Bernstein, Ph.D.

How do we teach our children to give, and to give generously, to worthy causes?

For most of us, as parents and grandparents, we teach by example, and by instruction. We talk about those values most important to us, and we model the behavior for our kids.

While this is true in so many areas of life, it may not be true in philanthropy.

In many families, including my own as a child, parental giving was something that the father and mother did on their own. While they talked about tzedaka to us as children, and we sometimes saw them give to a beggar on the street, most of their giving was done in consultation with themselves, and the check was written out of our sight. Perhaps it was an extension of the privacy of their finances; perhaps it was their modesty. It was only in cleaning up their apartment after their demise that we saw the extent of their giving.

I realize that we have done the same with our children – most of our giving has taken place out of the sight of our children. We do not often speak about the causes to which we donate money; when they have learned of our charitable donations, it has often been by chance.

How do we talk about giving, or more importantly, how do we involve our children in the process, and make them part of it, so that it becomes theirs’? How do we explain that token gifts to charity are not enough, and that we need to give significant amounts, relative to our income?

First, listen to them. We’ve learned about good causes from our kids (e.g. Shalva, Shachain Tov, and Pa’Amonim), through their volunteer work here in Israel, the educational institutions they’ve attended, and through their own giving.

Beyond that: I have a proposed model, learned from friends, which can be put into use davka at this time of year (the Hebrew month of Ellul, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur), which is a traditional time for giving. We hope to try it out in our family in the coming weeks for the first time. Perhaps this model is not for very young children, but teens and young adults can certainly participate in it.

The first step is to call a family meeting. (For our children, this is synonymous with announcing to them that we are expecting another child!) Explain how important tzedaka is to you, to your family tradition, to our Jewish tradition, or for whatever reasons you have (noblesse oblige, simple humanity). Keep it short! (If getting everyone together is difficult, this can be done via email, or a conference call.)

Then explain that you want each of them to do some personal research on a cause (or two causes) they feel passionate about. You can focus their choice (we will limit it to a registered charity in Israel; others might limit it to social welfare, or education, or a Jewish cause, etc.). Then explain that you expect each of them to donate a sum of money to one or two charitable organizations from their own earnings or from their allowance. The amount should be more than they normally might give, but definitely not out their reach; the idea to is to stretch them a bit.

They will need to make a short (!) presentation to you and their siblings (or cousins, if this is with grandchildren) about the organization, and justify its worthiness. (Our friends insist that each person in the meeting has the right to veto any cause, which means the choice will have to be one that the presenter knows to be not too far from the family consensus.)

You (the parents or grandparents) commit to matching any approved donation (in our case, by 250%), so that the presenter understands that s/he is actually instrumental in making a much more serious donation to the cause than just their own share.

This could become an annual ritual, but even if it does not, it sends a powerful message to our children that giving charity – in considerable amounts – is a (Jewish) family priority.

I’d be happy to share our experience this year with you, and to hear from you to learn from your experiences.

“Repentance, Prayer, and Charity Will Avert the Evil Decree.” (Rosh HaShanah Machzor)

David I. Bernstein, Ph.D., is Dean at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.