Teaching Generosity and Charity

Teaching Kids about Generosity and Charity


Friday mornings at our preschool begin with passing around our tzedakah box (Jewish equivalent of charity). Often children forget to bring money. I just say, “Hopefully you'll remember next week.”  Recently one boy had some coins in his pocket and offered one to each child who had forgotten to bring tzedakah.  Following this, I came to school with a pocketful of pennies-- enough for 5 per child.  When we passed around the tzedakah box, one boy held his 5 pennies tightly and would not put them in.  He was adamant! He needed the money for his college fund!

We often talk about those in the world who need our help, so the other children were shocked. I said I was sure he would change his mind soon, but he continued to insist the pennies were now his.  Later he dropped them in the midst of playing. I put them in the tzedakah box, reminding him that I had brought them for this purpose.

Was there another way to handle this? And, more broadly, how do we encourage the development of generosity in young children?

                                                                            -- E.R., Preschool Teacher


This sotry is a perfect illustration of the complexity of teaching/modeling altruism to young children! Let’s parse it into three core components:

1. The value of money

2. Child-to-child generosity

3. Generalized altruism - towards “those in the world who need our help.”


1.  The Value of Money:

You could see from your preschooler’s insistence the money is for his college fund, that he hears discussions of money and saving at home, but he has no concept of real finances (5 cents vs. the cost of college).  Young children only begin to grasp the value of money (up to $10-$20) at school age and of larger amounts- certainly college costs- only in their teens. Teaching the value of spending wisely and saving is important but only effective through their parents’ long-term modeling.  Preschoolers understand that the shiny copper and silver disks have some kind of magical power, but that’s about it.  If you really want them to understand saving for the future, start with concrete things, such as ”Let’s save half the cupcake for the afternoon,” or “How about saving some play-dough for tomorrow?”

2.  Child-to-Child Generosity

The “Nature” vs. “Nurture” debate about the development of altruism in children is a hot topic, requiring more room than we have here.  Jean Piaget (old, but still valuable) held that only in the last “formal operational stage” (11-16 & up), with the development of abstract reasoning, could a child comprehend altruism and autonomously acts on it.  Newer research has identified “spontaneous altruism” in toddlers, chimpanzees and… rats. For now, suffice it to say that many researchers today believe there is a strong innate altruism – balanced by healthy egocentrism- observable already in toddlers’ behavior.

All this pertains to the immediate world of the child- her family and peers- and this is the altruism to foster now. Thus, when he offered his extra pennies, rather than telling the boy what a nice thing he had done, I’d ask his peers what they thought.  Their appreciation would go much further in inculcating the emotional rewards of generosity.  Because money is so abstract, best ways to encourage child-to-child altruism are through giving and sharing of “real” things like toys, treats, or a teacher’s lap (suggestions: http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec06/kids.aspx).


3. General Altruism Towards “Those in the world who need our help”

This level of altruism requires abstract thinking - the ability to imagine and care about people you don’t know, and to comprehend the value of money.  As I said, preschoolers posses neither.  So, have your preschool “adopt” an organization that serves people or animals in your own community: homeless shelter, animal rescue, or local park.  Consider that kids relate more easily to abandoned animals than to the more abstract “poor” people. Get the kids collecting toys, books and clothes, pet treats, or planting flowers.  They understand the value of these from their own daily experiences.


I know this leaves the Tzedakah Box out of the picture and you do want to teach the Jewish practice of tzedakah.  So keep the tzedakah box out, but realize it provides learning by imitation and rote, not by deep experience. To teach altruism to preschoolers, think “out of the box.”


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