Follow these tips to instill a commitment to charity and volunteering in your kids from an early age.

By Real Simple
Updated October 24, 2012
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A version of this article originally appeared on

That feeling you get after giving back to your community? Your kids can appreciate it, too, and, as parents, it’s our job to get them started down the path of volunteering. In fact, according to a 2010 poll, most teenagers say their parents are the biggest influence on whether or not they give to charity.

Giving and volunteering have their own benefits: both can actually help boost your children’s self-esteem, build their confidence and shape their values. Not to mention that, as they grow, they’ll naturally notice how you spend your time and money. If they see you giving, they’ll be much more likely to follow suit as adults.

With that in mind, here’s a timeline for helping even the littlest tykes blossom into pint-size philanthropists.

Taking Baby Steps (Ages 3 – 8)

Experts say you can start introducing philanthropy to your child when she’s old enough to understand the idea of caring and give and take, which could be as young as three or four. Stick to introducing the basic themes that apply to charitable work, like:

  • Cooperation
  • Sharing
  • Respect for individual property
  • Recognizing and dealing with emotions
  • Selfishness and selflessness

To help her connect the idea of philanthropy with actual activities, point out local heroes in your community and talk about why they’re important. Also look into social groups with a focus on caring, sharing and helping–like your local 4-H or Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Embracing Projects (Ages 9 – 12)

At around nine, a child can understand sophisticated concepts like the fact that not everyone has the same things he does. He is also physically able to do more, like pulling weeds, planting flowers, painting a mural, or lifting small boxes. Here’s how to find a specific activity the two of you can tackle together:

  • Explain to him that a not-for-profit organization is typically supported by donations, and that any profits it makes are put right back into its mission (like helping children, working with the poor, or spreading the word about healthcare). Point out specific groups in your area to illustrate your point.
  • Pick out projects that align with his interests. For example, animal lovers can pet dogs and cats at the local ASPCA.
  • Be realistic about how long he’ll want to spend volunteering. Don’t push it—you shouldn’t spend more than a few hours a month on projects at this age.
  • You can’t expect a child to come away from every volunteer experience with a great attitude, but take the time to talk about what he learned and how volunteering made him feel.

Keeping Teens Engaged (Ages 13 – 18)

By the time your kids are teens, volunteering may start to feel more like a chore than a good deed. Keep up your conversations about why doing good is important; 33 percent of teenagers who described themselves as “givers” in the aforementioned poll said their parents explained how their actions help others. Here are ways to keep them intrigued:

  • Get a state-by-state list of volunteer opportunities from the Council on Foundations and have your teen find something that speaks to her individual interests.
  • Don’t badger. Teens tend to be very busy, even over-programmed. “Volunteering should be rewarding, even if it’s not always fun,” says Amy V. D’Unger, Ph.D., chair of the board of directors of Compassionate Kids, Inc., a non-profit organization that helps young volunteers. She also suggests helping your teen figure out what her friends would be interested in doing: “They do everything in packs at this age,” she says, “and being reassured that it’s ‘cool’ will go a long way.”
  • If your college-bound teen is really unmotivated to volunteer, it’s okay to remind her that type of experience looks great on a college application. Just be sure to note that despite this added perk, it’s important to make philanthropy a more common occurrence to reap the full rewards.

The good news about doing good? Once your kids get in the habit, they’ll be more likely to pay it forward their whole lives.