Early Lessons in Generosity

Last Updated Sep 28, 2010 6:38 PM EDT

Kids learn how to be generous with their money and their time mostly from their parents. It's a huge responsibility that we share, and we don't always appreciate the example we set. But we must be doing okay because Americans continue to be among the most giving people on earth.

A few nations, like Ireland and Australia, have higher donor rates; more than 70 percent of their populations make charitable contributions versus 60 percent in the U.S. But by other standards the U.S. excels: relative to national output, the U.S dwarfs all other nations in terms of voluntary individual giving -- more than doubling the charitable contributions of the next closest nation.

Even in the throes of the worst economic downturn in several generations Americans continue to give until it hurts. Total giving by individuals, corporations and foundations fell last year by 3.6 percent but still exceeded $300 billion.

I was reminded of this in a recent conversation with Eileen Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, who says that in light of the weak economy "Americans have really stepped up to the plate." Giving in the states is cultural. Says Heisman: "We learn it at such a young age that it's hard to unlearn it as an adult."

Again, you may not appreciate the example you set. But odds are you:

· Give money. Most adults in the U.S. write a check to one or more causes each year, most often to a religious or educational group. Take the time to explain to your kids why you do it.

· Give time. Both the number of volunteers and the volunteer rate is rising. Some 63.4 million Americans -- more than a quarter of the population -- volunteered 8.1 billion hours at something last year. That represents a stunning $169 billion collective gift based on official estimates of the value of volunteers' time. When you give time at your place of worship or even just coaching little league you are part of this trend. Bring the kids along and talk about how it makes you feel.

· Give stuff. I couldn't find any estimates for this category. (If you can, I'd love to hear from you.) But plenty of folks give cars, furniture, clothing, land and securities. Bring your kids to the Salvation Army center next time you contribute clothes and let them see first-hand how your well-off family's recycled stuff can be of immense value to the less fortunate.

Why are Americans so generous? Historians believe it dates back the frontier days, when settlers depended on one another for many day-to-day needs. Philanthropist Daniel Rose notes, "if the pioneers were to have a church, they would have to build it; a school, they would have to build it; hospitals or roads or courthouses, they would have to build them."

The 19th Century French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville made the poignant observation that what set Americans apart from Europeans was their affinity for voluntary "associations" to solve community problems. De Tocqueville noted that fledgling America had no upper class to turn to. Groups of ordinary people who pooled their resources were the answer. "Whenever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association," he wrote.

That helping frontier spirit is alive and well today, and it's up to us as parents to imbue our children with this rich and special heritage.

If you have a question about kids and money, I'll get the answer. Email me at dankadlec@dankadlec.com.

Photo courtesy Flickr user grongar

  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.