As I mentioned in a previous post, we can cultivate compassion within our children by providing frequent opportunities for outreach and service. Generally, kids enjoy being helpful and doing something for others. Sometimes, though, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. Will certain activities be age-appropriate? Is there something we can do from home? How will my children react in an unfamiliar setting? Here are some ideas to get you going:
Read to the Little Ones
You can encourage a philanthropic attitude from an early age by reading books about giving. From Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree to a recent book called Because of You: A Book of Kindness, you can read about generosity in a way in which kids can relate. My kids connected with the book How Full Is Your Bucket? because they can envision acts of kindness as filling imaginary buckets for others. The book Make a Stand inspires kids of all ages to see what differences even their lemonade stands can make.
Projects from Home
Tangible and tactile expressions of serving are ways to engage kids beyond the books.
- Clean out closets and deliver donations to charities.
- Send homemade drawings and cards to loved ones.
- Several organizations encourage volunteers to pack shoe boxes full of Christmas goodies for kids or fun snacks for the troops.We enjoy donating Halloween candy after trick-or-treating (Okay, so maybe I am the only one in our family who “enjoys” getting rid of excess candy), and we ship them to Operation Gratitude, who then sends them in care packages to the military.
- Elementary-aged kids can make Linus blankets and donate them to children’s medical centers or to homeless shelters for children and youth.
- Assemble disaster relief buckets after a natural disaster makes the news, or pack manna bags to give to panhandlers or those on the street. (What do you typically say when your child asks to help the person with the sign on the corner that they seat from their car seat?)
- Help your child organize a drive at a loved one’s workplace for books, socks, blankets, or canned goods.
Let your child decide. Many non-profits publish in-kind donation wish lists (Cook Children’s, for example) so look up your favorite one online and find a way to contribute. If you need help finding Fort Worth non-profits, Fort Worth Moms Blog has a 2013, 2014, and 2015 list of some wonderful options. Whatever cause you decide to support, be sure to take your kids with you when you drop off any donations.
From ALS icebucket challenges to charitable lemonade stands, kids can participate in fund-raising for a favorite charity or cause. Walk in a race that raises awareness and money for a philanthropic purpose. Birthday parties can mean less presents from friends and instead gifts to those in need, whether guests bring books, stuffed animals, peanut butter jars, or sign up with the Peter Pan Birthday Club through Cook Children’s. Does your family give charitably? Do your children know this? Educate them and involve them in decision making. You could also let them choose a place to give their money and match their gift.
Going and Seeing
Probably the most meaningful way to engage children in service and genersoity is through experiential learning. Bring store-bought cookies to a fire station or nurse’s station. Practice a random act of kindness for no reason. Find a nursing home or retirement center near your home and ask if you can bring the kids. Talk to faith community leaders to see if they know people who could benefit from a visit from a child. Inquire about opportunities through civic groups (National Charity League has a Fort Worth chapter for mothers and adolescent daughters, for example) and through churches as they often have multiple avenues for service and often have less age and ability restrictions than some agencies. Allow your children to shop, prepare, and bring a meal to someone you know who has just moved, or is recovering from surgery, or is grieving. Contact local animal shelters to see how you can help or investigate volunteering at local soup kitchens or food pantries (note that some do have age minimums; Tarrant Area Food Bank allows children 8 and older). Also, consider that your getting out in the community does not always have to be revolved around “doing something.” Take a tour of a shelter or agency and learn about a cause or concern. Discover ways that your child can give (and receive!) the gift of presence with others different from themselves. My five-year-old son enjoyed his first game of Go Fish with homeless guests at our church the other evening (and he won!). Take a field trip and drive to a less served area of town. Ask your child, “What seems different here than where we live? What seems the same?” These first-hand experiences impact the ways our children perceive the world and the way they view their ability to connect and contribute in meaningful ways.
Make Generosity Your Own
Finally, let you and your child’s desire to volunteer and help originate from within yourselves. The motivation to serve is often sparked by personal experience. What’s important to your children and to you? Maybe your son wants to give coins to the animal shelter because he loves your shelter-adopted pet. Maybe your daughter wants to organize a toy drive for the hospital where she had her tonsils removed. You will figure it out, as a family, and others will benefit from your generosity (and so will you and your children!).
What’s your favorite way as a family to serve and give?