School principals are expected to look after the needs of their students. But how often do you hear of a student who’s attuned to the needs of his principal?

While in grade five, Romario P. of Pitt Meadows, BC, amazed his school principal by presenting him with an unconventional gift. Noting that his principal frequently joined in with students on garbage pick-up duty on the school grounds, Romario had dipped into his savings to buy a trash grabber to ease the task for his principal.

In Chilliwack, a 40-minute drive east of Romario’s school, Joshua I. is pondering one of his biggest decisions of the year: who to bless with the money he will receive for his eighth birthday.

Joshua is continuing a birthday tradition he began three years ago, when he was turning six. Joshua receives cash gifts from friends and family, and uses the money to buy a much-anticipated LEGO® construction set. With his remaining cash, Joshua supports a local charity. The first year, following his sixth birthday, Joshua contributed toys to Christmas hampers being assembled by his church. After his seventh birthday, he helped with a blanket drive.

For parents, hearing stories about kids like Romario and Joshua both inspires us and unsettles us. We admire such remarkable generosity. But at the same time, we can’t help but wonder, Why aren't my kids more like that?

The question needles us uncomfortably, because generosity is meant to be a hallmark of our faith. If our children truly understand the generous nature of God (Matthew 8:11, James 1:17), the jaw-dropping gift of their salvation, and that God expects generosity as proof of their love for Him (1 John 3:17, 1 Timothy 6:17-19), what more do our kids need? How can we free them from their own self-interest so a genuine concern for others can take hold in their lives?

Not surprisingly, researchers seeking to understand the roots of compassion and generosity have sought answers from a much-celebrated group of heroes: those who risked everything to rescue Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. The answers gleaned from the lives of these rescuers are illuminating.

In her book Growing Compassionate Kids, Jan Johnson summarizes the findings of Doug Huneke, author of a biography of Hermann "Fritz" Graebe. After researching Graebe’s life and conducting interviews with 300 additional wartime rescuers of Jews, Huneke identified ten traits these heroes had in common. Huneke noted that the heroes shared:

  1. A history of overcoming challenges in childhood (Graebe, for example, taught himself to stop stuttering)
  2. The influence of a morally strong parent or grandparent
  3. A past experience of being marginalized or considered an "outsider," for example, as an immigrant
  4. Strong empathy – the ability to vividly imagine life in someone else’s shoes
  5. Strong powers of persuasion – for example, strong public speaking skills
  6. A cooperative attitude and a sense of responsibility for others
  7. Exposure to suffering at an early age
  8. The ability to examine their own prejudices
  9. Belonging to a community who valued compassion
  10. A home life characterized by hospitality.

Huneke’s list plots some pretty clear "first steps" for parents to help inspire spontaneous generosity in our children. In addition to continually teaching Biblical values like 1 John 4:19 ("We love, because He first loved us"), we can lay a strong foundation by modelling compassion and generosity ourselves, and by helping our children learn to empathize with others.

Modelling a generous spirit

If we want our children to walk in "paths of righteousness," they need us to first lead the way. And to lead well, we ourselves need to stop and ask for directions every now and then. It’s a good idea to regularly examine our own witness by getting alone with the Lord and asking Him some hard questions – questions like What’s my example really teaching my children about generosity? Or Why do I struggle to be generous? Is it fear? Is it really true that I don’t have time for good works? Wait for His answer. It’s sure to be revealing.

To help our kids, perhaps it’s time to loosen up about "giving back to the Lord." On the whole, we tend to be pretty secretive about our giving, "not letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:1-4). But surely our kids belong in our inner circle when it comes to our investments in the kingdom. They can learn a lot.

Wendy Kittlitz, Focus on the Family Canada’s VP of counselling, advises parents "When you are doing something for the Lord, it’s okay to tell your kids why you are doing it." The goal is not to boast about your kindness, but to invite your children to follow your example.

Kittlitz adds, "Recently, I was cooking a meal for a family who were hurting. It’s something I love to do, to offer hospitality. I took my girls along to help deliver it, using it as a teachable moment to show that we can do simple things to serve others."

One of the easiest ways to model a spirit of generosity is to unseal the family ledger. Without needing to be too specific, here’s a simple way to give your children a basic understanding of how much you give financially, and why: Make a cake that represents your last paycheque, or last year’s income. Cut a portion that represents how much you gave back to God, and discuss with your kids why you chose those charities, and what the charities do with the money.

Look for fun ways you can involve your children in your giving. When it comes to tithing on their income tax return, pastor and author Phil Wagler and his wife, Jen, of Surrey, BC, let their children literally "handle the money." After converting their tithe portion into a stack of five-dollar bills, the family gathers around a hand-sketched grid of giving options, dealing out an equal stack of bills to each child, then letting each child decide how to divide their cash between the different charities.

Sometimes we can best "model" generosity by simply getting out of the way. Not all our children’s generous whims are practical, and sometimes it’s tempting to dissuade them with comments like, That’s a nice idea, but I think Grandpa would rather you kept your hard-earned money. But do we have the right to deny our child a chance to learn that God can use them to bless others? Let your child act on generous impulses when you can, even if their ideas might seem a little quixotic. There’ll be lots of time to channel your child’s generosity in more pragmatic directions as they mature. It’s much easier to redirect a generous spirit than to resurrect one.

Nurturing empathy in our children

Not sure what else to do, we sometimes try to stir empathy in our kids using statements like, Half the children in the world are very poor. But the overwhelming needs we are trying to articulate are often lost on our kids. By and large, children in our society have no inkling of what it really means to be "poor," either in Canada or in a developing country.

Since empathy requires the ability to imagine what life is like for someone else, a better approach is to present scenarios a child can easily relate to, and invite them to consider how that person might feel. For example, by asking questions like,

How would it feel to go to bed hungry every night?

How would it feel to get nothing for Christmas?

How would it feel to have so few belongings, you could fit them all in your backpack? What kinds of things might be missing?

How would it feel to have no mommy or daddy, and to have to live in a big house with lots of other children – a place called an orphanage?

Sometimes, too, the way we execute acts of generosity may be just too vague to inspire much empathy in our children. We write a cheque that disappears into a mailbox. We leave some gently used clothes in a drop-box. Seen from our kids’ perspective, that’s not terribly exciting. They have no real idea who the gift is for, and perhaps little understanding of the difference it can make.

No matter how fervently we might present the needs of "the homeless," "AIDs orphans" or "immigrant families," it’s difficult for children (and most adults too) to empathize with nameless, faceless groups. Psychologists have long recognized that we respond much more generously to the plight of a clearly identified individual. (That our compassion fails to "scale up" as numbers of the hurting ramp up has earned this phenomenon the label "collapse of compassion.")

To help your child’s compassion and generosity truly blossom, you may want to look for opportunities that bring your child "face to face" with individuals who need help. Websites that tell in-depth stories focused on just one child help our kids personally identify with the needs and understand how their giving helps. World Vision, for example, does this very well. A child sponsorship program may be another good choice for your son or daughter – one that offers an ongoing pen pal relationship with the sponsored child.

Alternatively, you might get involved as a family in a mission project through your church. Whether it’s sponsoring a hospital in Africa or an orphanage in Haiti, that long-term relationship is powerful, building a sense of connection and responsibility to others in your child. Also too, the repeated exposure to the same people group breaks down prejudice by helping kids get past the "strangeness" of another culture. When we keep our mission families front and centre in our lives, perhaps by praying for them at dinnertime each day, we show our kids that generosity is about more than donations. Kids learn, We don’t just write a cheque and forget; we offer ongoing friendship, and respect cultures that are different from our own.

We’ve all got something to give

Awakening new depths of generosity in our kids may be as simple as opening our children’s eyes to just how much they have to give. Though they may not be financially flush, our kids are still "rich" in many other ways.

We empower our kids when we teach them that they can be generous not only with their belongings, but also with their energy (performing chores and tasks for others), their time (spending time with those who are hurting), and their interests, creativity and skills (creating hand-crafted gifts, coaching or tutoring others, entertaining others through music, song and drama, or offering design, construction or car maintenance skills etc.)

Perhaps most importantly of all, we should urge our kids to be generous with their friendship. Who doesn’t remember, for a lifetime, the pain of feeling alone in a crowd? Do your kids know that when they’re inclusive – when they intentionally include a sidelined child in their play – Jesus sees it, and He says it’s as if they had done the same for Him? (Matthew 25:31-46)

Susie Larson has a great tip for parents. In her book Growing Grateful Kids, she suggests praying aloud for your kids in the car on the way to school – praying that Jesus will open their eyes to the needs of others around them, and use them to be His hands and feet in the classroom and in the schoolyard. Then, she suggests, follow up by asking your children to share their stories at dinnertime.

There is no "right way" or "wrong way" to help our children respond to the huge needs in our world. What matters is that we are doing something to model generosity and build empathy in our children. When we are faithful to plant the seeds, the Lord will use those experiences, building on them through the years. In His timing, our efforts will yield a harvest we could never imagine. He’s generous that way.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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