Teaching Tzedakah to Children
Using your common cents.
Justice is a central theme in the lives of children. From questions of fairness and equality between siblings ("Why does Danny get more than I do?") to ethical decisions and behavior ("Why is it OK to tell a little white lie?"), kids are engaged in a daily struggle with justice. So then, it follows, childhood is the ideal time to teach your child about justice from the Jewish perspective: tzedakah.
Tzedakah, colloquially defined as "charity," comes from the Hebrew root tz.d.k., justice. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 16:20, teaches "justice, justice shall you pursue." God must have known our kids. Children of all ages understand that justice helps to even out the playing field between people, and that fair treatment is preferred to favoritism. So children naturally understand the Jewish ideals behind tzedakah.
Fair is Fair
For a child, actively giving their money for tzedakah will not likely make sense unless it is their own idea. So in particular situations where children recognize an injustice in their world and question it, help them discover their desire to create change with some leading questions. What is it about this situation that bothers you? How can we help to make this situation more fair? What can we do to help? As parents, you know your children best: allow your child's natural curiosity to drive the conversation, with some help and guidance from you. Help your child understand that in the end, one of the best ways to help make our world a more just, fair place is to share the resources we have with others who don't have them. For every child who has ever fought over a toy, this concept makes complete sense.
Getting Ready to Give
Take an evident injustice in the world and use it as a reason to start collecting. Many kids who live in urban environments are all too aware of the homeless and hungry in their neighborhoods. If they are eager to give a few coins every time they see a hungry person, encourage them instead to "save up" by starting a tzedakah collection. This works well for environmental causes that help to keep our dirty world clean and green as well as for pet-rescue and animal protection organizations: go with your child's interests. Children are also very much aware of other children who have and those who don't: toys, food, homes, playgrounds, etc. When they ask why, don't explain away the issue, take the opportunity to explain that the world is indeed unfair, and that we can help make it fair and just by collecting our spare change to help others.
Make the Mitzvah Beautiful
Putting a penny in a jar is fun. But putting a penny into a can painted and decorated by your child is much more fun. Save your recycling for a week and choose the perfect jar or can to hold your collection. Make an art project out of the experience and cover it with paint, stickers, or even tissue paper, and you have a homemade tzedakah box. Other lovely options are to take a trip with your child to a pottery-painting shop and paint a jar or box especially for your coin collection, or even to shop for a child-friendly tzedakah box at a local Judaica store. When the choice or the design is your child's, the mitzvah becomes much more fun to perform.