How Do We Teach Our Children to Be Generous?


How do we teach our children to be generous?

The ancient traditions of religion and spirituality teach us to want for our brother what we want for ourselves.

Aristotle teaches us that generosity is intentional and balanced. It is more than just the act of giving something away. 

I had a friend once who demonstrated this spiritual principle in the way she lived her life. Her name was Jane.* Allow me first to tell you a story about Jane that demonstrates the highest form of generosity.

Jane had just had a baby, and her friend had just given her a brand new high chair.

Now Jane had two other young children, so she already had a high chair which was older and well-used.

This particular day in early spring, my friend Sophia* and I were visiting Jane. Sophia had a new baby, no money, and no high chair. 

Which high chair did Jane give away?

Jane gave Sophia the brand new high chair, and she kept the old one for herself. Jane wanted her friend to have what was better than what she had for herself. 

Oh! if the good hearts had the fat purses, how much better everything would go!
— Victor Hugo
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Now let me illustrate a form of delusional generosity, and then we'll talk about how we can lead our children to practice generosity

I once knew a minister of a church in Oakland.

He gave a sermon every week. One week around Christmas time, he told me his church parishioners were getting ready to do their annual 30-day charity drive.

He explained to me that it worked like this: the parishioners would go through their houses, gather 30 things they no longer wanted or needed and each day—for 30 days—they would give one item away.

This was their collective practice to learn the virtue of generosity—to detach from their belongings.

I thought of Jane when I asked my minister, "Why don't you have your parishioners give away something they still value and maybe even need? Is it really charity when you give away something you no longer want?"

I can still see the puzzled look on his face; his eyes darted away while he grasped the concept, and when he looked back at me he said, "You know, that's a great idea!"

I knew my minister and his parishioners must have been feeling kind, generous, and virtuous when the reality was that they were just getting rid of their junk.

And now they would be in for a surprise. It's not so easy to give away things we love and still hold value for.

A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.
— Jack London

Generosity is a state of virtue. We attain it when what we give in proportion to what we have has become easy for us. It's easy for a rich man to donate a hundred dollars, but it could be a week without food for a poor man.

Generosity is relative to our means. 

There's a balance we strive for because we have to give at the right time, to the right person, to the right degree, and in the right way according to Aristotle.

Some people give extravagantly, and some people don't give enough.

Both are extremes. 

Real generosity is the middle point we aim for between extravagance and being stingy. 

How do we relate this to children? We can't force our children to be generous, but we can model generosity, and we can encourage the same in them.

One of the times it's easy to teach our children to be generous is when they have too many toys.

Grandparents lavish them with gifts, aunts and uncles, and friends too. The pile of toys can add up to far more than a child needs.

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Here's a simple strategy to reduce a toy surplus and teach your children to practice being generous at the same time. 

Decide how many toys your child can have; we'll use the number ten as an example. Your child has ten toys so that he can play with one at a time and the rest stay in the toy box. Every time he receives a new toy, he gives one away. 

Using this method, children grow used to parting with things they like, and they also learn to be happy with less rather than more. 

Charity is not just about the giving of things but also the giving of our time and ourselves.

When we help an ill person or a new mother by cooking for them, when we offer a hand to an old person who's trying to cross the street, when we donate our time to a cause, when we lend a troubled friend our ear—these, too, are acts of generosity.

Our children will notice when we behave in kind ways towards others. They will learn from our behavior not from our words.

Treating our children with kindness in the right way is important too. Sometimes doing too much for a child whether its giving them too many material objects, too much praise, or too much help when they are capable of doing something themselves can lead to character defects. 

 Lastly, generosity is what we do when no one is looking. If we do good things to be noticed and praised it is no longer generosity but the perverseness of character. 

The charity that hastens to proclaim its good deeds ceases to be charity, and is only pride and ostentation.
— William Hutton


What are some of the ways you have taught your children to practice generosity that others may learn from? Are there any particular stories that stand out in your memory? If so, please share them below!


Elizabeth Y. Hanson teaches parents the secrets and skills to raising brighter children with a focus on getting the early years right. She is the founder of Smart Homeschooler™ and has been a consultant and researcher in children’s education since 2001.

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