Get your kids into the holiday giving spirit

I don't know about you, but I look forward to the holidays for a lot of different reasons. I love having an excuse to see friends or family I rarely see, justifiable reasons to travel, shop and, of course, overeat.

There's another positive side to the season as well. It's an opportunity to give back to our communities, and start building a foundation for our children to join in. Art Taylor, CEO of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, says, "As a parent, you have an obligation to use special occasions to instill the importance of giving in your children, and then support them in those projects."

So let's all take this time of year as a chance to show our kids how even little contributions can make a difference. By doing so, we help more than the world. We help our own offspring. Charitable involvement has been shown to help raise self-esteem, develop social skills, foster an introduction to the greater world and encourage your kids to appreciate their own lifestyle. So how do you start them on the right path? For optimum results, you have to present it in a way that is fun, relevant, and engaging.

START SIMPLY. You're not going to get very far if you try to strip them of their hard-earned pennies right off the bat. A more realistic approach is to show them that the little things they already do are acts of giving. Smiling at someone on the street, sending a card to a friend, and keeping a lonely relative company are all ways that they can help others. Another tip is to go through a simple closet clean up. Helping your child get a bag of clothes or toys he's outgrown together for charity not only serves multiple purposes, but it's an easy way to give back. And because kids grow so darn fast, it can be repeated several times throughout the year.

Most children are probably familiar with these things -- they've done them many times in the past -- but with your guidance they can look at them in a new light. They'll be happy to learn that they are helping out, and you'll probably uncover an urge in them to do it more often.

LET THEM CHOOSE THEIR CAUSES. If kids can focus on things they find interesting, they'll be more apt to stay with it, so present some charitable or volunteering opportunities that they'll enjoy or at the very least understand. An important thing to consider is that, while natural instinct makes you want to shield your children from the wrongs of the world, that might not always be the best approach.

"There are sensitive, age-appropriate ways to introduce kids to issues in the world around them so that they are portrayed not as unsolvable and scary, but as opportunities to make a difference," says Ellen Sabin, author of "The Giving Book," which was written for kids.

The fact is, you know your children -- so adjust explanations to their knowledge base and your comfort level. If you're supporting a project to help the troops, you may not want to go into all the grimy details of the war, but you can say that people are protecting our country and you want to do something to make their lives a little brighter. Likewise, the ins and outs of global warming and the environment can be over a child's head, but explaining that litter is bad for the park where they play will bring the cause home. Then, make a trip to that park for a clean up.

MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. "We encourage families to think of what organizations they want to give to throughout the year," says Taylor. "They should include their children in the decision-making process, so they see that there is a clear and thoughtful manner in which adults make contributions to charity."

Explaining why you're choosing not to support organizations that have pitched you is an equally important lesson. Volunteering as a family is also recommended. Not only does this give you a chance to spend time together, but also being a strong role model for your children is perhaps the best way to get across the importance of giving back. Children naturally mimic their parent's actions, so they'll be much more inclined to get involved if you do.

LIVEN IT UP. Incorporate giving into activities that your child looks forward to, like birthdays or playtime with friends. There are virtually unlimited ways to do it: Maybe for your kid's birthday every year, he or she chooses one gift to donate to a local children's hospital. An even better idea is engaging all of the children at the birthday party or play date to double the effect. For an arts and crafts activity, Sabin suggests having them make "giving certificates" with promises of things they will do to help others (for example, giving one to mom that says he'll help out the next time she volunteers). Another option is to have all guests bring a donation to the birthday boy or girl's chosen cause, such as a clothing or toy drive. Whatever you do, weave it into the fun of the party to get the best results.

OFFER PRAISE AND SHOW RESULTS. Almost as important as the giving process is talking about it afterward, to explain who you've benefited and how. Often, children will go through the motions of volunteering without knowing why they're doing it. So show them pictures, mementos, or the finished product -- anything that will explain the effect of their efforts. By the same token, make sure that the child feels appreciated for making these contributions. Children don't get the tax deduction or other tangible benefits of giving that adults often receive, so their reward is based on your words. Let them know that you're proud of them, and tell them exactly why, using specific examples. It'll make them want to give or volunteer again, and soon.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .