When Suneet and Priya Bhatt’s daughter Anaiya, now almost 5 years old, turned 1, the couple knew they wanted to celebrate her birthday, but not drown in gifts. So they told their guests no presents, unless they wanted to bring school supplies for kids at the charter school where Priya taught.
The party came and the Edison, N.J., family ended up with two carloads full of donations. Their toddler? She didn’t miss a thing. But what they hoped she would gain from this, and from birthdays to come, would be priceless.
“From that point on, we said this is the way we want to do” birthdays, Suneet Bhatt says. Sure, Anaiya still receives presents. But now, she likes to go online to the site Daymaker.com to see which kids need them.
Anaiya’s brother, Jaan, had the same “Daymaker party” when he turned 2 in May.
Suneet Bhatt’s parents raised him similarly, taking him to volunteer at hospitals starting at age 11. His wife, he says, is like-minded. “ So we want our kids just to be as generous and thoughtful.”
But how does a parent teach this to a child?
Here is some advice from experts so you, too, can raise a generous soul.
Picture lecturing a 3-year-old about why he should give his unused Mega Bloks to a faceless charity.
Your child is thinking: “Wait. Do what now?” Their brains simply don’t work that way, particularly at a young age.
But then picture how you live. If you’re kind to the waitstaff, your kids will realize that’s how it’s done. If you say thank you when you’re given your change at the grocery store, your kids will learn to be kind as well. If you collect cans for the food bank, donate pajamas to children in need or visit senior citizens who may be lonely, then your children, too, will learn to do the same.
Nicole Darsney works at Charity: Water, an organization that helps get clean water to people around the world. Because her kids are just 4 and 2 years old, she knows she can’t lecture them about generosity. But she hopes they will grow to understand “how lucky they are, and how many people around the world are not as lucky,” she says.
To integrate the idea of generosity into their everyday lives, the family has started a tradition where they put their Christmas tree up, then talk about “our month of giving.” They pack up toys the children agree to give away, and they go shopping together for a toy drive. They set intentions at the beginning of the year and make generosity one of them. They also ask people not to bring gifts to the girls’ joint birthday party in April. Instead, they have a Charity: Water birthday campaign. Darsney’s older daughter likes to track “how many people we bring water to today.” (Last year, the birthday pulled in $4,000 for the charity.)
Darsney, who lives in Jersey City, says her parents “roll their eyes and say I speak to them like adults.” But she believes that if she shows her daughters now why they need to be generous and how to do it, it will become a part of who they are.
“We can’t think of any better way to teach [generosity] than to model it,” says Cynthia Germanotta, the co-founder of Born This Way Foundation, an organization that aims to help young people create a kinder world.
She leads the organization with her daughter, Lady Gaga, and says modeling generosity was a priority when the now-famous rock star was growing up. “We just set an example as parents by giving back,” Germanotta says. “Whether that was our time by taking children to [charity] events or donating to nonprofits.” (She noted her daughter was at that moment at a shelter, buying pizza for people whose homes were lost in the Camp Fire in California.)
The organization just launched Multiply Your Good, where people can volunteer at or donate to a nonprofit in their community, then fill out a form explaining what their “act of good” is by Dec. 21. Born This Way will match it by doing something good for one of its nonprofit partners.
Parents can’t just assume their children will become generous people. They have to work at it as they do with table manners. And it has to be constant.
People often wait until the holidays to perform acts of generosity, “but this has to be a 365-day affair,” says Michele Borba, author of “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” “We have to add it to our parenting so they turn out to be generous.”
She suggests pointing out the acts of generosity we experience on a daily basis, so kids can start to understand how to integrate it in their own lives.
When it’s bedtime, for example, say, “Let’s think about the helpers and the people we are grateful for,” she says. With bigger kids, ask them to talk about one person they want to thank from their day.
Borba suggests parents focus on the positive aspects of the world, so children can see that people can make a difference. The news is full of “doom-and-gloom reports,” she says, “but there are always fabulous articles that show empathy and gratitude.” Share those with your children. “They can be inspired, and it will galvanize them.”
Parents need to teach children that generosity is something that requires sacrifice, says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common, a project that aims to teach kids to be kind. “We tend to tell them to be kind because it will make them happy in the end,” he says. But we need to teach them that they should be generous simply “to be generous.” Sometimes, acknowledging that is important. “When kids do something uncommonly kind, it’s really important to recognize it,” he says. “If they spend an hour shoveling a neighbor’s car out, that’s real generosity, and we should reward them by noting it.”
We can show them how being generous lifts an entire community, Weissbourd says, how just one hour of shoveling makes someone’s life much easier.
One of the things Fred Rogers, the longtime television personality on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” always said is “attitudes are taught, not caught,” says Roberta Schomburg, interim executive director at the Fred Rogers Center, an organization for early learning. “Children are watching. And when they’re surrounded by a generous atmosphere, they’re more inclined to be generous.”
With young children, it can be a difficult concept. They don’t really understand another person’s point of view, and it’s natural for them to see things as all about them. But it’s important to talk from a young age about the different ways of being kind and explain that generosity doesn’t have to mean giving “things,” Schomburg says. Making a picture for someone or singing someone a song can be an act of generosity.
It’s also important to remember that just because they are young doesn’t mean they can’t be generous. “We see generosity in toddlers, giving half a cookie to their mothers,” she says. “I really do think those interactions start at a very young age.”
Are there going to be slip-ups? Of course. “As a parent, I’d ask myself, ‘Am I being unreasonable?’ ” Schomburg says. If efforts don’t appear to be working, she suggests parents rethink their approach and change their expectations.
“It’s always great to include children in toy drives and giving things away,” she says. “But we need to recognize that it’s hard to separate them from their mementos.” They may have a connection to that seemingly useless toy that you don’t understand. So don’t force it, she suggests, but let them choose. If children are forced to give more than they want to give, she says, they become stingier later because “they are afraid things will be taken away from them.”
So sometimes it’s best for parents to live generously themselves, then stand back and watch. Children “need to grow from the inside.”