Raising Charitable Children

An excerpt from Raising Charitable Children, by Carol Weisman, used with kind permission of the author.

How do I make charity and philanthropy a fun and rewarding family tradition?

A friend of mine once introduced me to a very wealthy businessman who wanted my help setting up a charitable foundation in his family’s name.  Thomas could do almost anything.  He could make millions of dollars, he could attract beautiful women.  The one thing Thomas couldn’t do was talk to his three sons. Thomas thought he’d invite some of the “boys” from his corporate board of directors to serve on the foundation’s board. I asked, “If it’s a family foundation, why not invite your kids?” He was reluctant- his youngest son was only five years old, his 21-year-old son had Down syndrome, and he and his 26-year-old son barely spoke.  I assured him that each son would be mature enough to handle the conversation. Despite Thomas’ misgivings, he agreed.

When we met, everyone was edgy.  This was the first time the four of them had ever sat in a room together without the mothers/ex-wives present. I told them that the purpose of the meeting was to figure out the family foundation’s priorities.

I began the meeting with this question:  “In the last year, what made you happy?”  The five-year-old was the first to respond.  He said that Chester, his new puppy, made him happy.  When I asked him why, he said, “Chester is smart and funny, and when I come home, he is always there for me.”

The oldest son, an aspiring actor, said, “I saw a play that I couldn’t stop thinking about. It made me realize that people don’t live forever, and that you can’t hate forever.  It’s the reason I’m here today.”

There was stunned silence.  Thomas said, “I’m glad you saw that play.”

The son with Down syndrome said, “I love my softball team. I like to run and slide into the plate. I even like the smell of the dirt.” Finally I turned to Thomas and asked him. “What made you happy?”  He puffed up his chest, sat up straight and said, “Last year I scored a hole-in-one.” I asked him why that was so special.

He looked at me like I was a total moron.

I re-phrased my question.  “Please explain to your sons why, for a man as accomplished as you, a hole-in-one was such a major event.”

He said, “I was with three friends, and they were both happy for me and jealous of me. We had a big celebration at the clubhouse and everyone knew about my hole-in-one.”

I then asked what made each of them want to cry in the last year.  Once again, the five-year-old wanted to start.  He said, “Chester makes me very sad.” The oldest son asked why. The five-year-old replied, “Something could happen to Chester and he wouldn’t be waiting for me when I come home.”

The son with Down syndrome said, “I hate diabetes and having to stick needles in myself.” The oldest son said, “I hate sitting by the phone after auditioning for a play, waiting and waiting and waiting.  I eat ice cream all day, and then I feel sick and fat and miserable.”

Thomas said proudly, “Nothing makes me cry.” I tried a different approach. “Could you instead talk about a time in your life when you felt sad?”

He thought for a few moments and then said, “I watched my mother die, day by day, of cancer. Every day, there was less of her and more of the cancer. By the end, she was drugged all the time. I hate the way the hospital smelled. I hated the nurses for not coming in more often. I was nineteen years old and alone with her when she died. I was holding her hand and it just turned cold. There was nothing I could do. The one thing I wanted to do was find my father, drag him out of whatever bar he had parked himself in and beat him senseless.” The boys were shocked to see tears in their father’s eyes.

I asked the boys if there was anything they wanted to say to their Dad. The son with Down syndrome got up and put his arms around his father. The little one said, “I’m sorry your mom didn’t live.” The 26-year-old looked his father in the eye and said, “There have been times when I’ve wanted to drag you out of one of your meetings and hit you, too. I know how you felt.”  Thomas said, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

We started to put their joys and sorrows into categories. The joys were playing sports (softball, Thomas’ hole-in-one), great theater and pets. The sadness’s were losing a pet, dealing with diabetes, struggling to establish an acting career, and losing a loved one to cancer.

We proceeded to talk about how they could invest money in the community so that others could share in their joy and be spared some of their sadness. Each of them agreed to start looking for organizations that could help people in these ways. Ultimately, the four of them made donations to a number of worthy groups that reflected their concerns and interests.

After the meeting, Thomas told me that those had been the most meaningful, most difficult three hours he had ever spent with his sons. He felt awful about his divorces, and it was painful to hear about all the things that had brought his sons grief. He was saddened by the time he had spent away from his children while building his corporate empire. While he couldn’t cure all the ills of the world, Thomas now saw how he and his sons could help other people, and one another.

Since Thomas and his sons sat down for that first Joy and Sadness meeting, some things have changed. There is a professional staff running the foundation now – but once a year, Thomas and his sons still get together for what they call “The Meeting of the Men.” It is still run as a Joy and Sadness meeting, and Thomas tells me it gets more comfortable for him and his sons every year. Is everything perfect between them? No. Is it better? Absolutely.