How to Teach Tzedakah to Tots: Step at a Time

My toddler views coins as toys. When it’s time to drop quarters and other change into a slit of a tzedakah box at our temple, he eagerly obliges, then says, “Again.”  We tell him this is tzedakah, a small act of charity. Does he understand? At this point, I doubt it.

Still, it’s never too early to start teaching children about the importance of doing something for others. My son is 2½ years old. He understands the concept of receiving. “I want” starts many sentences. And when he wants something, he wants it “right now!” I take him shopping for others’ birthday presents, and he asks if it’s his birthday. My hope is that over time, he will understand that we do not always get what we want, that gee, other people have birthdays, and sometimes, the best gift  is giving to others.

My son performed an act of tzedakah this past weekend, though he did not know that. He brightened the day of a temple member who has no grandchildren. We went to visit her in her apartment in an assisted living home. I brought fruit and purposely brought Simon. He quickly made himself at home, then sat at her electronic piano and sang her one song after another, including “Do, Re, Mi.” He did not want to leave, and his audience of one seemed thrilled. She gave us a tour of the facility as we headed out, and Simon grinned at residents who smiled back in turn. For him, this was just having fun.

I grew up with an appetite for volunteering. My family was not that observant in our Jewish faith. I do not remember having a tzedakah box as a young child. I remember that my mother volunteered in a variety of ways, and that when neighbors needed help, my family pitched in. I grasped the idea that life was not just about my wants. As a teen, I was a candy-striper in the physical therapy department, pushing patients from their hospital rooms to their appointments. Some of the patients were as young as me, recovering from a sports injury. Some were old, trying to get control of their limbs again after a stroke. Some said thank you. Some barely acknowledged my presence. Volunteering can be fun. It can be uncomfortable. My comfort level was immaterial. What mattered was that others might benefit.

My time as a candy-striper and years later as a Big Sister was tzedakah. It is not the type of tzedakah I can expect my son to understand at this point in his life.  We will teach him tzedakah in baby steps. We’ll  give him his own tzedakah box and help establish giving – whether it is in the form of money or time – as a natural part of life. I volunteer now less than I did when I was single and working full-time. I do what I can. I’d like to do more. Perhaps the best gift I can give society for the moment is to teach the beauty of tzedakah to my child.

I’d love to know how others have taught their children about charity. What are your family traditions around giving and tzedakah?

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