For some kids, raising money for charity is like scoring a hat trick or mastering a sonata. To their parents we ask, what’s your secret?
We all want our children to become giving, compassionate people. Helping others teaches our kids important lessons about kindness, empathy and gratitude. But where and when do we start? Sara Dimerman, child and family therapist and author of Character is the Key, says that a charitable child is one that feels things deeply, and has empathy towards others. “Children typically develop empathy at around age eight; that’s when they’re truly able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and be more likely to want to help.”
Start small, start now
If you want your child to be charitable, be that kind of person yourself, says Sara. “Children learn more from what they see than what they hear. It doesn’t have to be extreme. It can start in your own backyard. When children see their parents doing small acts of kindness, like shovelling snow off an elderly neighbour’s driveway, this shows a general attitude toward caring.”
When children begin to feel good inside and understand the intrinsic value of helping, they’re motivated to continue. “They kind of get swept up in it; the more involved they get, the more involved they want to become,” says Sara.
On the following pages, we profile three of Canada’s brightest junior philanthropists: Hannah Taylor, James Brooks and Bilaal Rajan. “They are innately givers, with a heightened awareness of the world around them,” says Sara. But even if you give your child every opportunity to be charitable, there are no guarantees they are going to make national headlines. “Some children are simply more inclined towards altruism than others. Sometimes, that’s not something you can teach; it’s something that a child is almost born with.”
Simple ways to integrate giving into your child’s life
- Begin today: The earlier you introduce charitable behaviour, the earlier your kids will get onboard. Make giving a part of everyday family life.
- Share your stuff: Bring gently used clothing, toys and books to a shelter for families. Deliver non-perishable items to a local food bank.
- Help your neighbours: Walk an elderly neighbour’s dog or bake cupcakes for the new family on the block.
- Talk about gifting: Discuss which nonprofits to donate to. Collect the fundraising letters you receive each month and sort through them together. Help your kids understand how to help meet a specific need, such as raising enough money to buy a new piece of equipment at a children’s hospital.
- Think beyond money: Do something concrete – such as delivering meals to elderly people – to show your child the true impact of giving.
- Reinforce gratitude: Remind your child how fortunate you are to have food, shelter, and each other. Start a family gratitude journal and regularly write down what you’re thankful for.
- Introduce them to inspiring kids: Show your children what kids are capable of by visiting websites such as the ones Hannah, James and Bilaal created.
Hannah and Colleen Taylor
Hannah Taylor, Winnipeg, Man.
Cause: the homeless
Reaction: more than $2m raised
Hannah Taylor was five when she spotted a bearded man eating out of a dumpster. “She asked me why he was doing that,” recalls her mother, Colleen, who lives in Winnipeg. “And I said, ‘He’s homeless and he does it because he has to.’ Then I drove past the homeless man and went home to our big house with the big Christmas tree.”
For an entire year, every time Hannah sat down to eat or got ready for bed, she’d talk about the homeless man. “She’d ask, ‘Mommy, where is he? Who feeds him? Who loves him?’ She wanted information about how homeless people survived. She wanted to visit shelters. The more she found out, the more she wanted to know. But the worry on her face was enormous. I’d never had a kid that wouldn’t let something go,” says Colleen.
Colleen and her husband Bruce were mystified. “I wish I could say that we were the kind of home where we were missionaries, but that was not her environment,” she says. “This was so beyond us, like when your kid brings home a project and you can’t do it. All year, we tried to dissuade her and move her on to something else.”
But it didn’t work. One morning, Hannah announced she was going to help homeless people. She painted her younger sister’s empty baby food jars to look like ladybugs and left them at local shops and schools to collect donations for the homeless. That initiative became The Ladybug Foundation, which she started at age eight. The goal is to raise awareness about homelessness and help the non-profit organizations that serve them. Now 13, her foundation has raised millions for homelessness and Hannah has had public speaking engagements all over Canada.
“The minute Hannah started doing something about this issue that had touched her so deeply, the worry left her face and the passion took hold,” says Colleen. “We worry so much about what we’re going to teach our children, but they’re born with wonderful, terrific instincts. Our job is to support them, no matter what.”
Colleen is often asked if her other three children are also philanthropic superstars. “When you have a child that plays Triple-A hockey, you don’t put a hockey stick in the hands of the other children in your family,” she says. “My other children have their interests as well; the only difference is that Hannah’s in the public eye. She firmly believes she’s just a regular kid who’s had lots of chances to pursue her passions.”
Two summers ago, Hannah went back to the dumpster
that started it all. “She stood there for a long time, then wrote an
essay about how she wished that homeless man knew what an enormous
catalyst he was for her,” says Colleen. “I’m just a regular parent, and
I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but one thing I’ve learned is to genuinely
listen to your children. Let them be who they are. Many times, Hannah’s
passion has made me very uncomfortable, but it’s not about my comfort.
Once you become a parent, your comfort’s not even on the radar.”
Claire, James, David and Neil Brooks
James Brooks, London, Ont.
Cause: Lowland Gorillas
Reaction: more than $5,000 raised
Neil and Claire Brooks discovered that sometimes parents are just along
for the ride. The London, Ont. family often took their sons David and
James to the zoo, and by age five, James always wanted to hang out by
the apes. “It was more than just feeling that they were cute; he felt a
connection there,” recalls Neil. “Because he was interested in something
that we didn’t have any knowledge in, he was able to learn about it on
When James read about an endangered Bonobo ape named Kanzi
who had been involved in successful language experiments, he contacted
the lead scientist, asking how he could help. He discovered that helping
apes involved helping the people that lived near them. Apes are sought
after by poachers, and the park rangers who protect them are also in
great danger. “When he turned eight, he asked people to make donations
instead of birthday presents,” says Neil.
At 10, James launched
apeaware.org, a website dedicated to saving apes from extinction. In
2008, he started a charitable program called 1000classrooms.org, which
protects rare lowland gorillas in the wartorn Democratic Republic of
Congo. Through his site, he challenged classrooms across Canada to
donate $3 each. The money would help the widows of the slain park
rangers earn a living.
Now 13, James continues to educate his peers
about endangered primates, but still finds time to play the trumpet,
excel at school and hang out with his buddies. Neil believes that
when children are moved to do extraordinary things, it’s because they
have found something they care about deeply.
“I think children feel a
connection with others, and if kids think something is good and
important, they’ll find ways to help. It’s about parents recognizing
what it is that moves your child to take action. Kids should be
encouraged to find their passions, and those lead them to do things.
It’s not what they care about, it’s that they care.”
Bilaal Rajan, Richmond Hill, Ont.
Cause: Global Child Poverty
Reaction: Raised Nearly $5 million
2001, when Bilaal Rajan was four, the family was reading the newspaper
together as they often did. He learned about earthquake victims in
Gujarat, India. He looked down at the clementine he was eating, and
decided to sell oranges door-to-door, quickly raising $350. Since then,
Bilaal, now 14, has travelled to all seven continents to spread
awareness and help raise millions of dollars for dozens of causes,
especially global child poverty. His website has a simple message:
Together, we can make a difference. In 2005, he became a Youth
Ambassador for UNICEF Canada. “There has to be an awareness passed down
from the parents to the children, to bring about the realization that
there are other people in different situations,” says his father, Aman.
Bilaal’s coast-to-coast speaking engagements and recent book Making
Change: Tips from an Underage Overachiever, encourage youth to make a
difference in their communities. “Bilaal’s not saying ‘Rah, rah, change
the world’,” says Aman. “It’s a quiet kind of awareness and revolution
that he wants to instill in every child.
substantially downsized their lifestyles after their son became an
activist. “We used to drive fancy cars, and I carried beautiful designer
purses,” says Shamim. “Those things aren’t part of our life anymore.
He’s totally changed our lives.”
Charity Starts at Home
Sara Dimerman’s Tips for Creating a Charitable Environment:
Project a Caring Attitude Within Your Family
little events, like having the whole family watch one of the kids
playing soccer, are formative ways of showing children how to care for
“Take their interests seriously; don’t pooh-pooh their ideas. Make time to get to know your child.”
Don’t Force the Issue
we do little things, and they pick up on what we’re doing, that’s one
thing. But if parents try to force it, it’s not going to happen. A child
may give in different ways, even just within their family, and that can
be good enough.” “There has to be an awareness passed down from the
parents to the children, to bring about the realization that there are
other people in different situations.”
Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal writer and television producer and mother of one son.
Published in November 2010