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It’s Hard to Teach Charity to Kids–But This Might Work

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about how to teach our children the concept of tzedakah. As parents we set expectations for our children in so many areas, from the mundane to the profoundly existential. At the top of my list, I want to teach my children gratitude for life’s blessings, compassion for those less fortunate, and the importance of joining communities of love and support. Shaping my children’s worldview will affect how they treat others long after I am gone, including how they raise their own children, thus helping to make the world a better place with each successive generation.

My kids are still young but the oldest is almost 5; the time has come to invest more time and energy in teaching these life lessons. It is a huge responsibility, and the best way to teach is leading by example. I want my children to understand that the abundance they enjoy is unfortunately not experienced by many others, so we should help whenever and however we can.

READ: Why Didn’t I Give That Homeless Man Money?

Every Shabbat before we light candles, each child puts some loose change in our tzedakah box. It is a fun activity but I don’t think our son connects the dots about it being charity. He shows early promise in math, but has not quite caught onto the concept of money. The last time I offered him a dollar, he just ripped it up into a million pieces. (Admittedly, this did not happen that recently, but I haven’t exactly been in a hurry to give him any more dollars.)

We also sorted through his toys a few weeks ago and removed several large bags’ worth to donate. He thought we were just getting rid of them because he doesn’t play with them anymore. While he made a good point, I was unable to impress upon him that we were doing a mitzvah by donating them to charity rather than selling them or throwing them away. And while he does share with his sisters—sometimes even unprompted—I feel like the idea of giving to people he doesn’t know is completely lost on him.

A totally unscientific survey of mine confirmed that many other parents are looking for opportunities to teach everything their children ever wanted to know about mitzvot but didn’t know to ask. Recognizing this need, my local Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Greater Hartford (and maybe yours too) recently doubled down on creating programming to engage and educate both parents and children in mitzvot, tikkun olam, and community involvement.

READ: Teaching Tzedakah to Children

A few days ago, a post on my Facebook feed popped up about a JFS event to collect school items for those who cannot afford them. The flyer included a list of items needed, which made it a no-brainer. Perfect for people like me! Most of the items I will be buying for my son anyway as he enters kindergarten in a few weeks. Also, back to school sales are usually pretty good, so it will be easy to add items from the list to my cart without breaking the budget or schlepping all over the place.

Most importantly, I will get to translate concept into action. After discussing the philosophy of buy-one-give-one with my son, we will purchase the items together. Then we will attend the event where he will physically hand them to a volunteer and see many others doing the same things. I hope the intentionality of this activity and crystallizing the teachable moment will begin to instill the sense in him that tzedakah will gain him something far more valuable than what he is giving up.

I am really looking forward to participating in this event and future ones like it, although I must admit to feeling some conflicting emotions. A part of me feels bittersweet about my son’s loss of innocence—how can I possibly ingrain in him the urgency and reverence of without also exposing him to the tragic realities that he has been so blissfully unaware of until now?

READ: I Never Liked Hanukkah, But I Do Like Tzedakah

I know that in just one day I will not be able to magically teach my son about our responsibility to help other families in need. Yet I want to honor and celebrate this first step. It is a poignant farewell to childhood and the beginning of a lifelong journey. An inner journey toward embracing the most loving parts of himself and an outer journey of living with purpose and integrity in service to others.

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