Even in a year when flashy holiday gift buying likely will be downplayed, many kids still will be focused on what's coming their way.
But if you want to teach them this truly is supposed to be the season of giving, use your own actions to speak louder than words, says Clark University psychology professor Wendy Grolnick.
For example, helping your child gather used coats for donation to a homeless shelter can teach them more about their family's values than a dozen lectures on compassion ever could.
Early giving can make altruism a regular part of life, says Jan Cady, director of philanthropy at Children's Hospital of Boston. "It's like building muscle-memory in school-age kids that will last a lifetime."
How to get started:
Check out Web sites like Idealist.org or 1-800Volunteer.org for searchable databases of volunteer opportunities. Or contact an organization, like the L.A.-based Century of Compassion, that connects local volunteers with causes that interest them.
You may find one that's a perfect fit, or you may see something that sparks an idea for a project your child can create on their own.
With young kids, you'll need to be the guide. But with older kids, discuss the type of giving they'd like to do. "Talk together about what would be meaningful," Grolnick says, "rather than saying, 'I found something for us to do. We're going to help at the soup kitchen.' ... Maybe the child will say, 'I'm really interested in helping kids who don't have a home.' "
The more involved a child is in choosing the type of giving, Grolnick says, the more they'll learn from the experience.
For a child, charitable giving "changes your whole perspective," says Emily Douglas, a 26-year-old graduate student.
At age 11, Douglas started a charity called "Grandma's Gifts." Fifteen years later, she has spearheaded the donation of more than $12 million in goods and services to families in Appalachia. She has never drawn a paycheck for the work. But "in school, in work, in everything I do," Douglas says, "it's helped me."
Through "Project Good Gift," launched this month by the Children's Hospital of Boston as part of their Generation Cures program, a child can opt to give up one gift this year. The money that would have been spent on the gift gets donated to the hospital's research fund for curing childhood diseases, Cady says.
By giving up just one gift, the child can know that they've helped other kids around the world. They receive an e-card from the relative or family friend who made the donation, thanking them for their compassion.
Another twist on this idea: Have your family agree that everyone will give up one gift this year, and use that amount of money to buy toys or clothing for residents at a homeless shelter in your area.
Make a family project out of donating outgrown toys to a local shelter. Many hospitals also take toys donations, but some accept only new ones to avoid risk of infection.
eBay's Giving Works program another easy and fun option — with parental supervision, kids can auction off an item, pledging the proceeds to their chosen charity. Or they can bid on items that are being sold to benefit a charity.
Kids love to "see what bids come in from people all over the world, and watch the price go up," says Kristin Cunningham, general manager for GivingWorks. "If they're bidding on an item with their parents, they love to see if they're going to win it in the last few moments."
Cunningham mentions one boy who built a small bench with his father, a carpenter. Photos of the boy and his dad building the bench appeared alongside the item on the site, and eBay employees were so struck by the boy's enthusiasm at giving that a bidding war broke out in the office over the bench.
Yet another way kids can give what they've already got: The Locks of Love program accepts donations of long hair (bound in a ponytail or braid) for use in making wigs and hairpieces for kids suffering from illness-induced hair loss.
"Kids need to realize," says Douglas, "there are other ways to give besides giving money." A child can give a single afternoon of their time at a local retirement home or hospital and have a huge impact. They can arrange to stop by on a Saturday and play an instrument, or read aloud from a one-act play with the help of a few friends. Or they can bring some personal artwork to decorate an otherwise drab room or hallway.
If they're willing, suggest they stay and talk, even briefly, with the residents or patients.
"Kids often think they can't help because they're too young, they're not powerful, nobody's going to listen," Douglas says. "Adults do it, too. They think they can't help because they're not famous and they can't donate a million dollars."
Not so, she says: "Hold the door. Call an old friend. Pay someone a compliment. Smile. ... You may not turn around and say, 'Wow, I smiled at that person and changed their entire life.' But maybe you changed their day."