How do you teach real giving?

Kids are being taught to be altruistic, fine. But now we have to teach them how to discern, Anna-Liza Kozma writes.

My six-year-old came downstairs the other morning before school with a crumpled $10 bill, the last remnant of her Christmas money. "It's for the children whose houses fell down," she said.

Her pale, freckled face furrowed with concern. "Some of them can't even find their families, mummy."

Around the country, children are continuing to collect toonies and bills for Haiti. It's been a month since the earthquake, but compassion fatigue has not yet leached into Canadian classrooms.

One elementary school I heard about, in Toronto's east end, had a coin drive and, when they were done rolling their pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, they had raised $1,500 for Haitian relief. Others have raised several times that amount.

Kids helping kids: A young Haitian boy peers out of his new tent-home at a refugee camp near Jacmel, Haiti. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Some kids, like Miriam Yacubaga, gave up chocolate milk at lunchtime and donated their milk money to the coin drive. "I would like to see them buy food and clothing, shelter, all that kind of stuff, that will keep them healthy and warm," said Miriam.

Why would they do this? Peer pressure? An altruism gene?

One reason, suggests Martine St-Victor, a Haitian Montrealer and relief fundraiser, is that kids see themselves in the media images of other children affected by disasters like this.

"Like the rest of us, they've seen all the images on the telly and on the internet," she says.

"What's great with children is that they act right away, ignoring the possible hurdles."

Kids know

No one is going to argue that it's a wonderful thing to bring up kids with a generous spirit.

Little individuals who think beyond their own wish lists and who grow up with some recognition that not every child in this capricious world of ours has enough rice or water to fill their tummies, let alone enough Lego to re-build the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.

The strange thing for me is that my kids don't watch TV and are too young to enjoy untrammelled access to the internet.

Of course we do have dozens of current news magazines lying around the house and it's possible that a cover photo caught their eye.

But I really don't remember talking to them about the earthquake in Haiti, even though I have been working on a number of programs about the disaster and the generous response of Canadians.

I guess I felt it could be troubling to young minds to talk about something as sudden and as catastrophic as an earthquake. Or perhaps it was just the desire to separate my home and work life.

Perhaps I was wrong.

My brother the whale

It wouldn't be the first time that school has acted as a kind of social conscience.

Since kindergarten, we have been regaled by songs about the environment and the importance of re-cycling.

"My brother the whale, my sister the sea," Lydia sang at her kindergarten graduation last summer. (Your brother isn't a whale, he's a little boy," my husband tried to counter.)

As the children get older, I'm hoping that their schools will do an equally good job encouraging critical and independent thinking, as they do in nurturing that sense of community.

It's a balancing act I find myself doing every day when confronted with the moral complexity of many of today's news stories, whether the climate change conference in Copenhagen, the war in Afghanistan or the situation in Haiti.

The same day that my little girl ran down the stairs with her Christmas money, I was interviewing the senior editor of the British medical journal, the Lancet, Dr. Rhona MacDonald.

She has concerns that many large aid agencies are "polluted by internal power politics and the unsavory characteristics seen in many big corporations."

Competing with each other

A specialist in pediatrics and public health, Dr. MacDonald has worked for several aid organizations and, of course, acknowledges that they do vital and important work.

However, she argues, they could do better by marketing their own profiles less and by working more collaboratively with the local, grassroots organizations that are best placed to offer emergency relief.

She was shocked, she said, to find aid organizers staking out sites in disaster zones that would make the best TV shots and competing with other agencies for the most "newsworthy" victims.

Natural disasters always trump the so-called man-made tragedies of conflict and war, Dr. MacDonald says.

Though if you're a kid who has lost your mum or dad, it can't make any difference if it's a gun or a 7.3-registered earthquake that snatched them away.

Learning to give

Hearing MacDonald's concerns didn't stop me contributing my little bit towards the disaster relief. But it did give me pause about how best to channel that contribution.

And I was more than happy to encourage Lydia to donate, too. In fact, every Sunday my husband gets one of our kids to put the offering envelope into the big brass collection plate at the local Anglican Church.

Lately, an extra envelope has been going in for the Primate's World Development Fund, marked for Haiti.

It's a big deal for my husband to give regularly partly because he is very aware of his own father's generous philanthropy and clearly wants to pass that trait on.

Also, because churches are often plugged in to crises around the world, the weekly collection plate provides a reminder that we need to give to international as well as local needs.

As a result of all this we've been talking more at home about what it means to give.

We've decided to try to be a bit more hands on this year. Volunteering at the food bank is one idea.

Another is buying some extra groceries to help fill the shelves there, especially by getting the kids to chose some treats they would like to give away.

Lent, the season leading up to Easter, is just around the corner. It's meant to be a period of reflection and discipline.

Not a bad time to be thinking of what we as a family might give up — chocolate milk, lattes? — and what we might give away, as we drizzle maple syrup on our Shrove Tuesday pancakes.

Giving up something you cherish in order to give something away seems to be two sides of the same coin and easy for kids to understand.

Learning how to make that giving as effective as it can be, though, is another matter. That will take a lifetime of discussion around the dining room table.