Japan: 4 Ways to Teach Kids to Give to Charity

Last Updated Mar 21, 2011 2:28 PM EDT

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan are unfortunate reminders that bad things happen in the world and that we should teach our children to be compassionate and give to charity.

When it comes to disasters, one of the biggest challenges parents face is making sure that their discussions with their children are age appropriate. When I mentioned the situation in Japan to my five-year-old, all I managed to do was scare her. My message was completely lost on her and we ended up getting into a science lesson about why earthquakes happen and if New York City is at risk.

My experience didn't surprise Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator. When it comes to disasters, he believes parents are best off trying to talk about them with slightly older kids. He says you can start to discuss earthquakes and other catastrophes with children who are 10-years-old. (Give or take a year depending on your child's maturity.) The main lesson you want to get across is that it's critically important that we all go beyond ourselves and help other people in their time of need, he says.

Berger also believes it's important to educate children, especially teenagers, on how to give. His daughter's class, for example, is planning on raising money for Japan. Once they collect the funds, they will need to decide which organization to give the proceeds to. He hopes they make a smart decision. Here's some advice from Berger for helping kids make savvy donations:

1. Donate Money
Kids like tangible things. So it's not uncommon for a class to collect clothing, blankets and canned goods for those who are in need. But when it comes to disasters, especially one that's far away, he says it's better just to send money.

During relief efforts, food and supplies often get left behind since they are too difficult to transport and distribute, says Berger.

2. Don't Text
Kids love to text. So don't be surprised if they want to follow the latest trend and send their donation through a cell phone. You may even think this is a good idea since it sounds like an efficient way to help out. Unfortunately, this may not be the fastest way to assist those in need.

When you use your cell phone, you're making a pledge, Berger explains. That promise then has to go through the phone company and you eventually find a bill on your monthly statement. The carrier then forwards the cash it collects to the philanthropy. The whole process can take 90 days, says Berger. A more efficient way to send money is to make a donation on your favorite charity's website.

3. Do Your Homework
Adults know all charities are not equal. Now it's time to teach our children this lesson too. If you go onto CharityNavigator.org, you'll see that the non-profit ranks organizations and recommends folks choose a three-or-four-star philanthropy to support.

Also, it's important to explain to your kids that some organizations will not commit to using all the money it collects for Japan. A few examples include, the American Red Cross and Save the Children. If you and your children are uncomfortable with this, you should do some research and make sure your money will go only to the Japanese relief efforts. (Again, CharityNavigator.org has this information.)

4. Avoid Scam Artists
Yes, scam artists love a big disaster. A lot of money changes hands and they want in on the action, Berger says. Common ways fraudsters target people is by calling their homes or by making up a new charity that has a name with Japan or earthquake in it. Your best bet is to research an organization that you want to give to and then log onto its official website.

As for me, I think I'll make my own donation and leave the kids out of any further discussions. We'll continue to focus on age appropriate philanthropy projects that are supported through their school. Today, for example, I've was tapped to read The Chicken and the Worm, a book from the Heifer Organization. While it seems strange to me that the kids are focused on something that seems untimely, I have to remind myself that hunger across the globe may not make headlines but is a constant issue that needs our attention.

How do you teach your children about giving to charity?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Japan image courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.
More on CBS MoneyWatch:
Charity: How To Teach Your Kids To Give
Charitable Donations: What You Can and Can't Write Off
Old Toys: 4 Tips When Donating Them To Charity
The Most Reliable Laptops