As the holidays approach those U.S. families that can afford to are studying how they will spend a large chunk of their annual charitable donations. It seems that most giving happens during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. We want to help those in need when we have so much to be thankful for. 

This year, take it a step further, and involve your kids. By establishing an annual holiday tradition, you can teach your children that wonderful feeling of giving to others. Children learn best by doing, and by empowering them to research, choose and donate money to a charity, they will understand what you already know: Giving feels great.

You are likely among the 90 percent of American households that donate to charities every year. But, have you ever asked your children how they want the money spent? And do they understand who in your community needs help? Now is your chance to teach them what you value most. Here’s what you do:

1) Agree. First, you’ll want to decide on an amount with your partner or spouse. Do the children have to choose a single charity? Do you want them to present the money themselves? Do you only want the money to help people, or can they “adopt” an animal with such groups as the World Wildlife Fund? Make sure you are in agreement about the parameters. As in all things to do with child rearing, you’ll want to have a united front and clear instructions.

2) New tradition. Build this new habit into your existing holiday traditions. You could present the money to the children at your Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Or it can be as simple as the first fire of the season, to add a little anticipation to the mix.

3) When? Try to start when they’re young, but older children can also enjoy these lessons. You’ll want to keep it age-appropriate. A 5 year old won’t be able to independently research his charity of choice, but a 12 year old might want minimal guidance.

4) How much? Present each child with an envelope with a meaningful amount of money inside. You don’t want the amount of money to overwhelm them, but you do want them to feel they are participating in changing the world for the better. A good rule of thumb is their monthly allowance times three.

5) Good choices. Take this opportunity to talk out what you consider important and the needs of the community. Tell them how you choose to spend your donation dollars and why. Then, ask them if they agree. Work hard not to judge. If they would prefer to give the local spouse-abuse center iTune gift cards for the kids instead of shampoo or toilet paper (the less “sexy,” but more needed items), think hard before you say no. Remember, you want this to be a joyful — not stressful — experience. You’ll find your 6-year-old will probably want to rescue the cute arctic fox (complete with a stuffed animal for the donor), while the 13-year-old may be inspired to donate to the local children’s shelter. Their choices may be a little self-absorbed the first go-around. Let them be. We all donate to the causes that mean something to us.

6) Research. Giving the children a timeline for conducting their research, and check in with them periodically to see if they have any questions, what they’ve discovered and whether their opinions have changed. You are telling them their opinion matters. Show them how to ensure that the charity spends the money effectively and is classified as a 501c3. This will teach them how to be conscientious consumers. Also, they might want to participate in their school’s “Coats for Kids” campaign or donate to the school’s library, so encourage them to check in with their school’s administration. Also, some principals have a “principal’s fund” for children who need school supplies or even a new pair of shoes. 

By teaching these lessons to your kids, you give our society the gift of children who understand the power of money as a source of change. Added bonus: You are teaching them to think about someone other than themselves without having to say they should be grateful. They’ll be grateful all on their own.


Ivan Illan is director of financial planning and investments at Michel Financial Group in Los Angeles. You can e-mail him at 

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