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Kids learn charity by paying tithe

Published: Saturday, July 28 2007 12:20 a.m. MDT

They're buying cows for hungry children in developing nations. Financing mission trips to build houses for poor families in the United States. Helping churches pay salaries, utilities and other expenses.

Many children around the country — with their parents' guidance — are learning early to donate 10 percent of their allowance to charitable causes. Parents and religious instructors of various denominations say that starting to tithe young instills a philanthropic spirit in children, as well as a practical lesson in budgeting.

It's just part of the efforts by many churches these days to help families manage money. Clergy are teaching or organizing classes for parishioners on balancing household budgets, overcoming credit-card debt or saving for children's education.

Church is a place where families "can be transparent about their challenges with money without being judged," says Cynthia Sumner, author of the book "Dollars & Sense," which aims to teach mothers money management skills. The book, published in 2005 by the faith-based Mothers of Preschoolers support group, says tithing creates financial discipline and improves self-esteem.

"It kind of makes me feel good," says 9-year-old Olivia Sturtevant of Worthington, Ohio. "I know I'm helping out my church."

Every Saturday, Olivia and her sisters, 11-year-old Emilee and 5-year-old Amelia, divide their allowance into three envelopes: one for saving, one for spending and one for tithing. On Sundays, they put the tithing envelopes into the collection plate at Worthington Presbyterian Church.

Their parents, Coreen and Kevin Sturtevant, talk openly with the girls about the family budget, the dangers of credit-card debt and the necessity of saving for unexpected expenses. They say they're trying to combat a culture in which many children have no concept of how much things cost.

"I'm preparing myself to get out in the world," says Emilee, who receives an allowance of $5.50 — half her age. "I'm budgeting my money instead of buying every little thing I want."

Biblical scriptures call for believers to give one-tenth of their income to support their faith. The practice is encouraged among Catholics, Protestants and Jewish congregations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also admonishes its members to tithe.

Terrie Lynn Bittner, a Mormon Sunday school teacher in Feasterville, Pa., introduces the concept of tithing to 3-year-olds. At that age, children are naturally generous and not "overly attached to money," she says.

As part of the lesson, Bittner walks the youngsters around the church and shows them new items in the building. She explains that their money helped pay for the new additions.

"It makes them feel a part of the church," the 48-year-old says. "They take better care of it."

Financial planning can't start too early, according to professionals. Fewer than half of teenagers surveyed by Charles Schwab & Co. said they understood how to balance a checkbook, budget money or use a credit card, according to a 2007 poll.

"Teaching your kids about money should start right now," says Kristine Dixon, director of consumer education at Charles Schwab. "It's a skill that will help them throughout their lifetime."

The best way to teach generosity is by example, says David Arthur, vice president of resource development for Generous Giving, a privately funded ministry that encourages people of all income levels to donate.

"If you say 'be generous' and they see you not being generous, they are not going to do it," he says. "(Children) do what we do."

That's why Joan Carey, who lives outside of Madison, Wis., takes her six children along on volunteer outings and discusses the family's donations to their church and Catholic education.

She also holds back 10 percent of the children's allowance each month. At the end of the year, the family chooses a charity to give the money to.

"It comes out of wanting to raise your family to a life of service," the 43-year-old says. "We want service to come to them as naturally as breathing."

Now that her oldest children — twins John Paul and Thomas — have turned 16 and begun working part-time jobs, Carey has helped them open a checking account, apply for a credit card and create a budget. She expects them to save for college and continue to give away 10 percent of their earnings.

Carey's sons say they are eager to tithe.

"I've worked hard to earn this, and I'm giving it freely to a cause that I'm concerned about," says John Paul, who recently wrote a check to his youth group to pay for building supplies for a mission trip. "That does feel good."

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