Raising more than money - FamilyEducation

Raising more than money

September 08,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Now that summer is over, my son's thoughts are turning to...making money. He's an enterprising kid, with a constant flow of ideas about new inventions, designs, and lucrative business ventures he hopes to embark on--immediately, usually. And he has, like most eight-year-old kids (and adults, actually), a shortage of funds. Last week we spent hours talking about how he could start his own salvage business for retrieving treasure off of shipwrecked vessels. He would design special submersible robots to do the dangerous work, and then pocket all the gold.

"All of it?" I asked him, hoping to encourage him to think less selfishly.

"Well, maybe not ALL of it," he conceded in the end. We discussed various options for what to do with the rest of it and then, after some discussion, he did decide he would give the bulk of it to the needy, and keep the rest so he could buy the Playmobil sets he wanted.

Yesterday morning, while the post-tropical storm Hanna mosquitoes swarmed around our ankles in the driveway, L. decided he wanted to re-establish the dog water stand he'd set up last year at the top of the driveway. He'd charge, he reasoned, five cents for a drink of water. We lasted all of ten minutes out there before the heat and the mosquitoes drove us back inside, and L. had made nothing (it wasn't, apparently, a good morning for dog-walkers). Earlier in the weekend, he wrote up mini copies of his own newspaper and charged family members a whopping fifty cents for the latest edition. Since we had grandparents visiting us, he made $1.50 in about 12 minutes--pretty good, I think. This winter, he told us, he wants to open the neighborhood's first only newspaper and hot chocolate stand, with marshmallows for an extra nickel apiece.

I'm proud of all his enterprising ideas, but we constantly struggle with trying to teach both kids about selflessness--philanthropy doesn't come naturally to small children (or to some adults), and it's one of the few character traits that I think has to be taught and carefully nurtured. It starts back when they're toddlers, with those important lessons on sharing, and teaching about sharing is a lot more difficult than it seems. Even the smallest of children are motivated by the what's-in-it-for-me mentality, and sharing goes against this completely. Some kids are good at sharing, others need to work harder at it and they may never, ever, quite take to it. But with growing up, I think, comes a better appreciation of how sharing actually can be a reciprocal act--you may not get immediate gratification for doing it, but the warm, fuzzy feeling you get--and the promise of a new friendship and a kind gesture in return, are a little addictive.

So we've been talking with L. quite a bit this past weekend, about what he can or can't do with any money he makes from all these ideas. We tried not to put it in terms of "You can't do this," because these are, after all, his ideas, and they are good and imaginative ones. But we've been encouraging him to think more about what he can do with the money in larger terms, and less in terms that are all about him. All this started me thinking about philanthropy and families, and about what educational resources are out there. I went to this website and to this one for ideas of how to involve the kids more in the community and in the world, and talked with them about how giving is not just about donating large sums of money, but about time and effort, and small but important gestures. We work hard at this during the holiday season, but it occurred to me recently that philanthropy is something we should try to encourage year-round, not just during those holiday times of the year.

It's all a work in progress, I know, but talking with L. about this recently has made us realize we grown-up people need to try to do more, as well--perhaps the greatest way to teach kids about philanthropy is to set a good example for them: reach out from your own heart and home, and hopefully the kids will follow. I'll keep you posted on how we fare, and on the success of the newspaper and hot chocolate stand. In the meantime, I'd love suggestions and stories from you about how you teach about giving and selflessness in your homes, because I know we struggle with it here.

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