NEW YORK (Reuters) - Not long after the megastorm Sandy hit the northeast United States, Maryum Goodwin and her little girl Ryleigh, 6, saw a disturbing picture of the New Jersey shore devastation.
“That’s somebody’s house?” Ryleigh asked.
“It used to be,” said Maryum, a stay-at-home mother from Kennesaw, Georgia.
That moment got Ryleigh thinking about how she could help. Since it was Halloween, she suggested donating her candy to kids who did not get to trick-or-treat. Her mom found a local Kennesaw resident who was shipping care packages north, and they dropped off all the candy she had collected.
“She was so excited to help,” says Maryum, who noted that that Ryleigh’s younger brother, Caleb, was not quite so thrilled about the idea.
Goodwin is hardly the only parent trying to pull her kids into charitable giving. Thousands of Americans have reached out to victims of the storm, and many are looking for ways to include their children. That kind of thinking is already bearing fruit, from the Point Pleasant, New Jersey, high school football players who are clearing out their neighbors’ flood-damaged furniture to the kids of St. Ann School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, doing their part by setting up a hot cocoa stand.
No one knows how many kids have participated along with those who have funneled $117 million to the Red Cross since the superstorm, but experts say schoolkids’ charitable initiatives spike after national disasters such as Sandy. And the lessons learned can stay with children for a lifetime.
“Sandy is a tragedy, but it’s also a teachable moment,” says Craig Kielburger, the 29-year-old founder of the nonprofit Free the Children (freethechildren.com), which lobbies against child poverty and exploitation. Kielburger started his charity at 12 after he saw a news story about child slavery overseas.
“You don’t want to overwhelm your kids, but show me one young person in New York who doesn’t realize that lives have been torn apart by this hurricane,” he says. “Kids are aware. So Sandy can be one of those moments to have that conversation with your kids, to count your blessings and to think about how you can help others.”
Still, amid an onslaught of media images of worldwide disasters, parents must foster charitable habits and attitudes that will endure for a lifetime, instead of just reacting to the latest headline.
“If you want children to care about giving, you have to let them figure out what makes their heart pitter-patter,” says Ellen Sabin, author of “The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving.”
For 5-year-old Norah Petrou in Ottawa, seeing dispatches from her journalist father sparked the urge to help. Her dad, Michael, covered the devastating earthquake in Haiti for Canadian newsweekly Maclean‘s, and Norah read all about it.
When her May birthday arrived, Norah asked her guests to donate to the Canadian medical relief charity GlobalMedic instead of stocking up on the usual toys. The charity collected more than $200 from Norah’s party.
“It was a very positive experience,” says Norah’s mom, Janyce McGregor, a producer with broadcaster CBC News. “The head of the charity even called her up and thanked her personally, explaining what they were going to do with the money.”
So how do you engender compassion in your kids, without shocking them with the towering amounts of poverty and misery in the world? A few tips from the experts:
Involve them in the decision-making. Rather than just telling your kids that you’re giving $50 to the American Cancer Society, ask their advice about where that $50 should go.
“You could suggest three different places to help, and then involve them in the family vote. Or you could give them a portion of the money, and say, ‘Now where will you give yours?'” suggests Sabin.
This engages them in the process and makes it more powerful. Roughly one-third of high-net-worth donors with kids involve them (and other younger relatives like nieces and nephews) in their household’s charitable giving, according to a Bank of America study conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Start close to home. Flooding in Pakistan will seem incredibly remote to a small child, but nearby disasters, such as the neighbor whose basement is submerged, show children that tragedy can strike next door - and that their help could have an immediate effect.
Make giving habitual. Charitable thinking is like a muscle that gets stronger with use, says Kielburger. You might incorporate charity into children’s weekly allowances, setting aside a portion for the cause of their choice.
Be age-appropriate. When your kids are young, you want to be careful about confronting them with the horrors of desperate need. For young ones, start with something simple like picking food from the pantry or blankets from the linen closet for neighbors or relatives affected by Hurricane Sandy. Teenagers could graduate to larger events like holding their own charity bake sales - with you matching every dollar they bring in.
Remember: It is not just about the checkbook, it is about the experience. If you want to create memories and attitudes that will endure for a lifetime, make charity an ongoing family activity.
“Our family ritual was that over Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would always bake cookies for the patients at my father’s hospital,” says Sabin. “That way I knew from a very young age that one way to make my parents proud was to do nice things for other people. That’s stayed with me ever since.”
Other ideas: Take a family volunteering trip together or raise money for a charity walk.
“For the next generation, we have to make giving a lifestyle - so it’s the thing they learn at school, the rally they go to with their friends, the social media they follow,” says Kielburger. “If giving is as much a part of their childhood experience as Little League or soccer or ballet, then it will forever become a part of who they are.”
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own. This is part of a six-story package on charitable giving.)
Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Chelsea Emery, Linda Stern and Douglas Royalty