Teaching Fifth Graders to Save and Give

The man in pinstripes held a piggy bank up for the fifth-graders. The right slot is for savings, he said to the students. The next will hold cash to spend; the left, money to invest. And another slot, he showed them, was marked "donate."

Last week, Alan Robbins, an investment specialist for Northwestern Mutual, taught a short lesson on personal finance to three classes of fifth-graders at Glenridge Elementary School in Clayton.

The students soaked in the lesson. But one theme kept reappearing: donations.

These students had sold lemonade to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims, raised money for guide dogs and pitched in when a schoolmate's home burned down.

But now Robbins was teaching them to save money for charity on their own.

"I'm talking about trying to create a habit you do over and over again," Robbins told them.

They understood, some revealed after the lesson.

"My parents don't have much to worry about," said Isaac Ilivicky, 10. Both parents are doctors, he said, and active in charities. He said that he felt he should donate, too, and that he liked learning more.

Business and government have long worked with schools to teach children how to prepare for the rigors of adult money management. Speakers such as Robbins say it's necessary and cite alarming trends: the increase in bankruptcy for those under 21; statistics showing Americans spend more than they earn.

More and more groups are working to turn around these trends, said Mary Suiter, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. This April, Suiter hopes to engage 4,000 students in the local "Teach Children to Save" day. A colleague in Illinois, Mary Anne Pettit, said Southern Illinois University Edwardsville did similar things, designing financial literacy programs that use children's books to teach spending.

And for the first time, Missouri's high school freshmen will be required next year to take one-half credit of personal finance. Illinois has long required a similar class.

But Northwestern Mutual's program incorporates an element Suiter said was rare-the teaching of charitable giving.

"I think it's a great idea," she said. "If you're going to talk to kids about responsibility, you have to talk about that aspect of giving back."

UMSL education professor Victor Battistich said the idea was in line with the social entrepreneurship movement, in which business people give back to the community where they succeeded.

He, too, found the piggy-bank lesson hopeful.

Northwestern Mutual has given more than 100,000 of the green plastic piggy banks to clients and students, as well as Boy Scout troops, church groups and other youth organizations across the country, said spokeswoman Jean Towell.

SIUE's Pettit hopes businesses soon will begin reaching out past Clayton, to poor schools, too.

Unfortunately, she said, "the folks who step forward and want the information are often the ones who have the greatest access to it anyway."