My toddler sees shiny coins and views them as toys. Asked to drop coins into a slit of a tiny cardboard box at our temple at the Tot Shabbat, he eagerly obliges, then seeks more coins. We tell him this is tzedakah, a small act of charity. Does he understand? At this point, I doubt it.

created at: 2010-11-09Still, it’s never too early to start teaching children about the importance of doing something for others. My son is 2 ½ years old. He understands the concept of receiving already. “I want” prefaces many sentences. And when he wants something, he wants it “right now!” I take him shopping for presents for others’ birthdays, and he wonders if it’s his birthday. My hope is that over time, he will understand that we do not always get what we want, that other people have birthdays, too, and sometimes, the best gift of all is what we give to someone else.

My son performed an act of tzedakah this past weekend, though he didn’t know it. He brightened the day of a temple member who has no grandchildren. We went to visit her in her apartment in an assisted living home so I could pick up a book I once loaned her. I brought fruit and purposely brought Simon. He quickly made himself at home, then sat at her electronic piano and sang her one song after another, including “Do, Re, Mi.” He did not want to leave, and his audience of one seemed thrilled. She gave us a tour of the facility as we were heading out, and Simon grinned at residents who smiled back in turn.

I grew up with an appetite for volunteering. My family was not that observant in our Jewish faith. I do not remember having a tzedakah box as a young child. I remember that my mother volunteered in a variety of ways. I grasped the idea that life was not just about my needs and wants. Well, I was one of three children, which also helped send that message.  As a teen, I was a candy-striper in the physical therapy department, pushing patients from their hospital rooms to their appointments. Some of the patients were as young as me, recovering from a sports injury. Some were old, trying to get control of their limbs again after a stroke. Some said thank you. Some barely acknowledged my presence. Volunteering can be fun. It can be uncomfortable. My comfort level was immaterial. What mattered was that others might benefit.

My time as a candy-striper and years later as a Big Sister was tzedakah. It is not the type of tzedakah I can expect my son to understand at this point in his life. The first step is to give him his own tzedakah box and help establish charity – whether it is giving money or time – as a natural part of life. I volunteer now less than I did when I was single and working full-time. I do what I can. I know I could do more. But perhaps the best gift I can give society for the moment is to teach the beauty of tzedakah to my child.

How do you teach tzedakah to your children? Let’s start a dialogue. Comment here or on my blog.

This post originally appeared on the Jewish Muse, A Writer’s Blog on Faith and Family.