How Can I Teach My Child to Be Generous?

Especially this time of the year (end-of-year giving, Christmas, etc), the topic of being generous comes up, and it's a great opportunity to teach children this same character trait.  This question came from a friend a few weeks ago, "Do you have any practical suggestions for teaching a 5-year-old to be willing to give more generously to those less fortunate?"

This family had read and discussed the passage I Timothy 6:17-19, and they talked about some opportunities to give money to others.  The boy in this family was reluctant to share and give more than a minimal amount.  He had questions about if he would get something in return, and if we only need to give to someone if they are really poor.  Having been through these discussions with my own children, and having gotten counsel from others, I was able to spend some time putting some thoughts together. 

For young child, you can make him give pretty easily.  I don't believe that parents should be reasoning with preschoolers; he needs to do what and when Dad and Mom tell him to.  In this stage of life, you are mostly setting foundational patterns for life.  But there is definitely more of a transition around age 5 or 6, to where it becomes less meaningful (in the long-term) to make him do good things.  In this stage of childhood, we need to focus more and more on the heart.  Remember, the goal is not to make him generous (or any other good character trait).  The goal is to lead him to a closer relationship with the Lord, to worship Him alone, and character will follow this life of worship as the Spirit works in his life.  

When I read I Timothy 6:17-19, it makes me think that generosity is a reflection of how we worship Jesus.  Specifically, our choice is to hope/trust/worship either wealth or Jesus.  One of the key issues, in this situation, is that the child doesn't really grasp what Jesus gave for him. Another key issue is that the thinks he owns his money, whereas the Bible says that we are stewards of our stuff.

Here's the great thing about this situation.  This external behavior (i.e., the child being selfish) is revealing the inner nature of the child's heart, that he doesn't fully trust in Jesus.  As parents, addressing the behavior with the child is not just for the sake or the behavior itself, but it highlights three main things that they can focus on teaching him -- Jesus' sacrifice for us when we didn't deserve it, our need to trust in Him and not things of this world, and that Jesus owns everything.

Here are some practical thoughts that could help:
  1. Proactively teach him about the issues of generosity and stewardship, from scripture.  Do this consistently, not just "in the moment" of trying to lead him to share.
  2. Make everything about the message of the Gospel, that the selfishness he exhibits is sin that he needs to repent of, and not just "do better" with.  Jesus came to pay the price for our sin and give us the Spirit of power to live in a way that pleases the Creator.
  3. Parents need to be an example of giving.  Let the child see and hear how you give.  For example, let him see you writing a check and putting it in the offering box at church; if you give on-line, let him see you do that, or occasionally write a paper check so you can model giving at church. 
  4. Help him by creating an easy pattern or system, as giving is not only a heart response but also a spiritual discipline.  When our children receive money, they know that it gets divided up into three categories:  Give, Save, Spend.  (Some friends of ours use these:  God, Others, Self.)  We try not to dictate too much the proportions.
  5. Keep praying for him to trust in Jesus more fully, and that the Spirit would work in his heart.

The tendency is to start with the heart, and then move on to the practical, and think we are done.  But don't stop there.  We can use the practical, and how the child is responding to those steps, as a way to keep exposing and reaching the heart.  Then do more practical things, then re-focus on the heart, and so on.  It's an on-going process for sure.

Any thing you can add, to help teach a child to be more generous?

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  1. This is an excellent post Joey. I recently took my son to do a tour of the Operation Christmas Child distribution center. They told the stories of shoe box recipients in a pretty powerful way - and that made a real impact on my 5 year old. However, the root heart issues still need addressing and this post is really helpful for me (as a parent)! - Amy

  2. I like this and so true. Great inspiration.

  3. never saw this post joey. it is right on. i especially love the emphasis on their need to repent and not just "do better" i needed to hear that today. thanks for sharing!