What “Charity Begins at Home” Really Means

family-charityMost of us have heard the expression “Charity begins at home.” However, for as common as the phrase may be, it’s also often misunderstood.

Many people interpret the idea of “charity begins at home” to mean that it’s important to take care of yourself and your family before worrying about others. For example, they believe that it doesn’t make sense to worry about whether other families have enough to eat before your own family’s needs are taken care of. While this approach makes sense to an extent, it’s also a misinterpretation of the proverb.

Multiple studies have indicated that happiness and a sense of fulfillment comes more from helping others and putting others ahead of yourself, along with a sense of gratitude, than from wealth or possessions. In other words, being charitable — truly charitable — is one of the secrets to a “good” life, and the idea of charity beginning at home has less to do with taking care of your own needs, and more to do with teaching your children about how to give to others.

Children learn from their parents, and when you model charitable behavior and how to put others first — and why you should put others first — it’s more likely that you will raise children who have a giving spirit, not to mention fulfilling and happier lives.

But how do you teach children to be charitable?

How NOT to Teach Charity

Before beginning any discussion of how to teach children to be charitable, it’s important to address some of the less effective means of doing so. Many parents have great intentions, but their actions aren’t consistent with true charitable actions. Some of the common mistakes include:

Giving and expecting something in return. Being charitable means giving a gift without expecting anything in return — not a tote bag, your name on a plaque, or even a “thank you.” Being charitable means giving simply for the purpose of giving, and being content with the knowledge that you did something for someone else.

Many times, families make a production over giving, expecting gratitude from the recipient or something else in return. Instead, encourage children to keep their charity a secret, and do it only for the feeling of happiness they gain from helping others.

Inconsistency. Many people focus their giving during the holiday season, and perhaps give sporadically throughout the rest of the year. Or they get the whole family together to volunteer for a day or two here and there, but don’t make a commitment to helping on an ongoing basis. While something is certainly better than nothing, lasting lessons about charity require consistency, and that means giving all year long.

Focusing on grand gestures. One of the biggest misconceptions about charity is that it’s all about grand gestures: Writing a big check, donating the unused boat to a worthy organization, organizing a food drive. Those are all important and worthwhile activities, but charity can also mean helping out a sibling with homework, doing a chore for someone else without being asked, or sacrificing a long-awaited treat to help someone else. Teaching children that the little things count too helps foster the charitable spirit.

Better Ways to Teach Charity

You might be thinking, “But if I shouldn’t do the things that I normally do, how can I teach my children to be charitable?” The key is to focus on the small things, and make giving a part of everyday life. This might include:

Encouraging your children to help others, including their classmates, friends, siblings, and you, without expecting anything in return.

child-flowerBrainstorming ways that you can make other people’s days brighter. Sometimes, a simple smile can help turn someone’s day around. Can you bring cookies to a neighbor, or some flowers to a teacher?

Encouraging sacrifice. Some families have instituted a holiday tradition in which during the weeks leading up to the big day, each family member agrees to make a money-saving sacrifice; for example, mom and dad might forgo buying lunch, while the youngest member of family is in charge of turning off lights.

Each time the sacrifice is successful, the equivalent amount of cash goes into a jar, and after a few weeks, the family can decide together how to use the money to help others. Even if you don’t do something so elaborate, teach your children the value of sacrifice and putting others before themselves.

Deciding together how to be charitable. Talk about causes you can support or activities you can do together, and follow through as a family.

Teaching your children to be charitable is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Not only are you fostering kindness, but you’re helping them along the path to a happier life — and a better world.

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