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Transmitting the Genes of Generosity

When you are asked to donate at the cash register, do you do it? Your answer is likely the same as your parents’ answer to this question because children learn financial habits, like whether to donate or not, from their parents and often emulate what they’ve seen their parents do.

In other words, what kids learn—or don’t learn—about money from their parents has a lot to do with how they manage their finances later on. Research suggests that young adults’ financial wellbeing and financial behaviors are a byproduct of how their learned about finances in the home.[1] One important aspect of financial wellbeing is financial giving. This idea, also known as “donating,” “philanthropy,” and “sharing,” is a favorable aspect of financial and personal success because it benefits both givers and receivers.

How can you instill this principle of financial giving in your children? Little research had been conducted about financial giving since the early 1980s, so Dr. Ashley LeBaron-Black learned from 115 families including young adults, parents, and grandparents about why teaching children to be financially generous is important.

LeBaron-Black found that children’s giving and their parents’ financial giving were motivated by the others observing their actions. In other words, parents would give more because they sensed their kids learning from them, and kids would give more because they observed their parents’ giving habits. Specifically, three key themes emerged about why parents give and why they teach this principle to their children:

First, charitable donations were often associated with the family’s religious beliefs, such as paying a tithe. Many participants donated to their respective churches, regardless of their financial condition. These participants reported that their donations brought spiritual and financial blessings. For example, one participant noted, “If you trust and you pay your tithing and you work hard, then it will all work out.’ ... So I was never fearful. ... The Lord takes care of you. He really does.”[2]

Second, many parents practiced acts of kindness to model financial generosity. One family would anonymously donate money to a family in need in their community each Christmas as a family tradition. The mother spoke of the impact she hoped this tradition had on her children: “Every Christmas we did 12 days of Christmas for someone. ... We [went] out and [bought] the things all together and deliver[ed] all together. ... Two kids went to the [neighbors’] door to [drop off and] run, and we’d have the [car] door open, ‘Hurry!’ and then we’d drive off. They probably remember every single one of those that were done over many years. We had friends who lost a job ... and need[ed] help buying their basics [like] food. ... We had a [neighbor] who had a baby and really did not have money. ... We bought all the diapers, baby wipes, and formula for the entire year. And the kids came with us, the kids were part of it. ... It would’ve been a lot easier for [my husband and me] to go out, buy, and deliver. But we always thought, ‘This is a teaching moment. And the kids need to know that you always have to look out for the needs of others.’ So yes, they were always part of it. Always.”[3]

Third, many parents said that the most important use of their money was to invest in their own family. They expressed a pattern of always striving to help their inner circle of family and friends, going on trips to provide family time rather than material gifts, and teaching about happiness as a goal instead of money. One participant noted the impact of this tradition on their own family: “Although [my parents] are still frugal with their money ... my dad always says, “Money is not meant to be sitting in the bank.” ... Especially when it comes to experiences like trips, they value experiences more than the value of the actual money. For Christmas we never got presents, but we went [on family trips].”[4]

Key Takeaways:

1. Creating Family Financial Generosity Traditions. Financial giving is extremely important for you to teach your children because it will likely lead to their own financial giving, which benefits the recipient and the giver. You might consider creating a family tradition where your whole family finds a specific way to help a family you know in need financially. These types of traditions can be especially impactful around the holidays.

2. Donating to Religious Institutions. When it comes to religious donations, the best way is to lead by example. Show your commitment by donating yourself. When your children see that you prioritize giving, they are more likely to follow your example. When the opportunity comes, share with them why you choose to donate and the impact that this has in your own life.

3. Contributing to Non-Profit Organizations. Create opportunities for your children to contribute to causes they care about. Encourage them to allocate a portion of their own money to non-profits. One suggestion is to designate a box or a jar to accumulate their donations over time.

woman holding change in her hands


Kids learn from their parents, and parents learn from their kids. U.S. President Joe Biden said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”[5] As Dr. LeBaron-Black pointed out, “it may seem ironic, but perhaps the most important thing we can teach children about money is to (appropriately) give it away.”


[1] Gudmunson, C. G., & Danes, S. M. (2011). Family financial socialization: Theory and critical review. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 32(4), 644–667. 4-011-9275-y

[2] LeBaron, A. B. (2019). The socialization of financial giving: A multigenerational exploration. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 40(4), 633–646.

[3] LeBaron, A. B. (2019). The socialization of financial giving: A multigenerational exploration. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 40(4), 633–646.

[4] LeBaron, A. B. (2019). The socialization of financial giving: A multigenerational exploration. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 40(4), 633–646.

[5] VP44. (2016, February 9). I often say: Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget & I’ll tell you what you value. #POTUSBudget makes our values crystal clear [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from 632?lang=en.