Teaching kids charity? Skip the soup kitchen trip

Teaching kids charity? Skip the soup kitchen trip

If you haven’t seen your first holiday decorations of the season yet, they’re not far off.

Holiday season is often the time when parents think about helping their children develop charitable instincts. It’s a noble goal, but turning children into philanthropists is not so simple.

Some seemingly obvious moves to create charitable children have surprisingly little effect. And some can actually backfire, according to Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

(Read more: How to give without giving headaches)

Take soup kitchens. A family outing to serve meals to your needy neighbors, especially around a holiday like Thanksgiving when many people are planning elaborate meals, seems like it ought to go a long way toward teaching charity.

Guess again, Berg says.

“The 7-year-old is making more work for the agencies,” he said. “They’re too young to move stuff around, and they can’t really be around anything hot, or knives. The time it would take to instruct them is more than it would take for an adult.”

That’s not the only problem.

“Even very young kids have a built in b.s. detector,” Berg said. “If you send them to a food pantry or kitchen on Thanksgiving that normally has 10 people volunteering, and there are 55 people there, they’re going to see in a heartbeat that there are people standing around and doing nothing, and they’ll get cynical.”

It’s better, Berg says, if kids participate in community service that aligns with their abilities and has a clear effect. For example, kids can lobby for funding for school breakfasts for low income students, writing letters to elected officials and talking to their school principals. Berg says he has seen children in a Newark, N.J., school delivering breakfasts to classrooms.

(Read more: More kids risk going hungry when school’s out)

“A young person helping out with that could probably feed a heck of a lot more people,” he said.

Talking to children about giving is also an extremely effective way to encourage philanthropy at a young age, according to a new study by the United Nations Foundation and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Debra Mesch, director of the institute, said the research showed that talking to children about giving increased by 20 percent the likelihood that children would give. That held true across race, gender, age and more.

“Role modeling in terms of household that actually give to charity isn’t enough,” she said.

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