Like many children in the U.S. today, my kids have pretty much mastered the art of “receiving from others." So at gift-giving times, I’m always trying to find new ways to focus their attention on giving to others instead.
A few years back, our family received a gift that helped us move in the direction I’d been hoping—a gift that was part experience, part giving to others, part educational, and that wasn’t a material item. We often hear about gifts that “keep on giving,” but as I look back on this one, it really did. And it’s still giving to this day.
My sister-in-law had given each of my kids a $25 gift certificate to Kiva, an online microfinance organization. Kiva has since become one of my favorite, inspirational nonprofits.
Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I just hang out on the Kiva website, watching some of their wonderful videos profiling entrepreneurs from around the world. On the site, you get to choose who to support with a microloan from a cast of hundreds—complete with photos and life details—creating a sense of connection to the person to whom you’re lending. (Two other great organizations that make international microloans are Zidisha Microfinance and Opportunity International.)
Once we explained to our kids how their unconventional gift worked, my son Stephen, then 12, jumped online, with my husband peering over his shoulder. Stephen had hoped to support a Kiva entrepreneur from Guatemala, where we had traveled the previous summer to practice Spanish as a family. Since Guatemala wasn’t a Kiva loan option at the time, Stephen ended up proudly funding Eduardo from Colombia. Eduardo owned a fruit stand and hoped to eventually buy a small store. Stephen smiled, feeling a bond with entrepreneurial Eduardo, and reminded me, “Colombians are supposed to be the friendliest people in South America, you know.”
Next up was my 10-year-old son Daniel. He also wanted to fund someone from a Spanish-speaking country, since our family had visited Central America for the previous two summers. Daniel chose Ernesto from Ecuador, telling us excitedly, “I picked him because he has two kids he needs to support. Oh, and he’s a goat farmer like Grandma used to be.”
Annie, only seven, needed more help maneuvering around Kiva’s website, but there was one thing she was sure of: “I’m definitely giving my money to a girl!” Annie initially hoped to support a woman who ran a chicken farm in a Spanish-speaking country. (Two sets of our neighbors were raising chickens, and Annie had spent many hours tending to and studying them.) But the day we explored Kiva’s website, all the Latina chicken farmers had been loaned to already.
So Annie enthusiastically chose a group of women from the Philippines who made and sold clothes. Then, she marched directly from our computer to our world map to be sure she knew the location of the Philippines. “I want to be able to picture where the girls live.”
It was fun to see which Kiva entrepreneurs my kids chose and why. Annie’s decision to lend to women reminded me of the book I was reading at the time, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In it, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn observed how microloans have helped women the world over, noting that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine, and housing. Consequently, children are healthier.
In describing the book, Kristof wrote: “There’s a growing recognition…that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”
When my kids were in elementary school, I wanted to teach them about microfinance but hadn’t had much success until I came across a lovely children’s book, One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway. I adored this book. But, more significantly, my kids loved it too. It’s an uplifting story about an African boy who buys one chicken, and how his life slowly changes from this day on. But the book also subtly teaches children a lesson in economics. I saw each of my kids return to One Hen more than once, after their initial read-through with me.
After my kids made their initial Kiva loans, each periodically wondered about some aspect of their entrepreneurs’ lives and tried to keep up with happenings in their entrepreneur’s country. About a year later, each child’s Kiva loan was fully repaid (Kiva has a high repayment rate). At this point, my children were able to take their initial $25 and lend it to someone new. Stephen, who was mowing quite a few lawns at that point in his life, even decided to use some of his earnings to make additional Kiva loans.
Still today, every year or so, my kids scroll through lists of Kiva entrepreneurs and choose another person to support. It’s become a kind of routine in our home. Usually, the kids pick someone in a place that has a certain meaning to them, or who is doing something they find particularly cool or important. In this way, my sister-in-law’s thoughtful gift all those years ago worked similarly to a microloan in our family: she threw a small pebble initially, but, over time, it’s had a large ripple effect.
Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl (currently ages 18, 16, and 13) who lives in Boulder, Colorado. At her parenting blog Play. Fight. Repeat. she writes on topics such as helping kids "stop at enough" in today's overflowing-with-items-and-options world. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.