“Charity” is not enough: Why I want my daughter to be an activist

coinsby Sachi Feris

As a teacher in various New York City private schools, I always felt uncomfortable about the endless drives for “charity” intended to “help other people.” Rarely, were students helped to see these “others” as real people with the same needs as they have.

An exercise at my daughter’s preschool during this past holiday season reminded me of an important difference between “charity” and “social action.” (For more information, see James Banks’ famous definitions of different approaches to multicultural education.)

A life-sized puppet named “Grandma” shared the following with my daughter’s class:

“I want to celebrate the holidays with my family, but I don’t have enough food to cook my family a special diner, so I’m feeling sad.”

Teachers prompted children to suggest what they could do to help Grandma. In response, they promptly raided the snack closet, giving Grandma a large box of Cheerios and other food items. The children had been presented with a problem and asked how to solve it.

The solution, and the action, came from the children— this distinguishes their efforts from charity and transforms them into social action. The opposite example might be for teachers to organize a drive without engaging children to identify the need for it, or understand why the need existed.

My daughter’s teachers asked parents to extend this discussion at home and bring in additional donations for Grandma and her family (as opposed to unknown “people who are less fortunate than us”). At two-and-a-half-years-old, or at any age, this concrete focus is essential.

On the way home from school that day, I noted to my daughter:

“I heard your class gave Grandma some food because she didn’t have enough for her family…would you like to go to the supermarket and purchase something to add to Grandma’s food?”

“Yes,” my daughter readily agreed, and we went to the supermarket, She picked out a can of beans, which I placed on the kitchen counter when we got home. A few hours later, my daughter told me that the beans were not, in fact, for Grandma, but for my daughter to eat all by herself.

“But,” I reasoned, “Grandma needs them, remember what your class talked about?”

“Why?” she asked in toddler-fashion.

I sat her on the kitchen floor with two of her bears, Fitz and Curtis, and began taking out food items, including cans of beans, pasta sauce, pasta, and rice. I gave two food items to Curtis and the rest (about eight items) to Fitz.

“Look,” I told her, “Curtis only has two cans of beans, but Fitz has so much food! It’s too much for him. It doesn’t seem fair. What can we do about this?”

At first she wasn’t sure, so I added, “What do Ernie and Elmo do with their milk and cookies?” She thought about it a minute.

“Fitz gives more food to Curtis,” she told me.

“Great,” I agreed. “How many should Fitz give?”

My daughter took one box of pasta from Fitz and gave it to Curtis.

“That’s it?” I asked. “Do you think this is fair now?”

My daughter gave me a negative, and we made two equal-looking piles.

Then, something distracted her and she moved on to something else.

One week later, a toy drive surfaced at my daughter’s school, and she would walk by longingly, wanting to play with the toys. Again, we returned to “Grandma who didn’t have enough food.”

“Grandma wants her grandchildren to have toys to play with…you like to play with toys, right? Well, every child needs to have toys. People are donating these toys so that children, like Grandma’s grandchildren, will get to play with them.”

I want my daughter to see that people who receive “charity” have the same needs as she does. And I want her to participate in the “solution,” rather than it being handed to her–because ultimately, I want to plant the seed for my daughter to see herself as an activist.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn.