Inspiring children to volunteer starts at home. Children typically follow by example. I know that is the case with our family. My mother, who went to Duke University on scholarship in the 1950s, could have done anything. She chose to help found Women in Action and became a social worker—working many years with the underprivileged and protecting abused children in Durham. She was, and still is, involved with several charities and I grew up gathering my old toys, going to drives, and driving along with her to deliver food or goods to families living in some of the worst slums in the South. It’s what we did. Because of that, in college, it just came naturally to volunteer at shelters, work with the elderly, and accept requests for various activities, including sleeping in the streets to protest the treatment of the homeless. I’m sure I would have done few of those things without her as an example. Today, I try to continue with a few activities with my six-year-old son—but I admit I could and should do more.
But getting children involved in volunteerism doesn’t have to be a huge leap. In the end, as parents, we really want to foster a charitable heart. If you are just considering your first venture—there’s no need to sign the family up for a week-long trip to Africa with your local church. Baby steps are always the best route, says Judith Symonds, a philanthropic advisor.
A simple charitable act can typically be found through your child’s school. When my son was only three, his preschool in Atlanta sponsored various women and children’s shelters and all the families would buy presents for the children or gather up suits and business attire for the women. Instead of just buying all of this on my own, I would drive my son to the Genesis Shelter every time—as I remember how meaningful that was for me as a child. William would help me carry in the bags and then he’d always ask about which children the toys would be going to. Inevitably, we began to do this throughout the year and the director would tell us what the children there wanted or needed and William would rush home and try to find the items he had. Here in London, my son’s school also sponsors a charity that supports young mothers and their children during the holidays and William will go with me to buy the toys again this year—it’s a good reminder of what the holidays are for.
But volunteering isn’t just something we do during the holidays. It’s important for children to remember those less fortunate than them and just telling them there are starving children around the world in order to get them to eat their veggies doesn’t really do the job.
“Show the children there is a problem, then ask how they can solve it. Get others involved. This shows them that everyone can make a difference, regardless of their age,” advises Julie Coppinger, a mother of two in Sugar Hill, Georgia.
For example, Julie told her daughter that some soldiers are in the hospital and cannot be with their families for the holidays. She then asked her what they could do for them.
This approach she learned through her eight-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troup which does a “community activity” once a month.
“We write letters to soldiers, gather used or gently-worn toys (washable for hospital) or books for children in hospitals, shelters, or orphanages. We also do a can drive for the local food bank, gather coats and blankets for the winter to give to the homeless, sing songs at the living assistant homes, read to a child in the hospital, put on a play or puppet show for children in the hospital, clean up a vacant lot that is full of trash and make into a garden or park area, etc. We see a need and fill a need,” she explained.
If your child’s school or organization isn’t involved in volunteer projects, it’s never too late to start. Suggest a charity be sponsored during a PTA meeting or see if children can support a local endeavor, such as cleaning up a park or ecology center with local officials and parents. To get inspiration into a variety of ways to volunteer, read: How We Made Our World a Better Place: Kids and Teens Write on How They Changed Their Corner of the World.
What if You Don’t Have the Time?
Many of us are struggling with multiple demands and are working long hours. Sometimes it seems impossible to take on one more activity. I understand. But there are simple ways to foster empathy and understanding—which actually leaves you feeling more fulfilled.
According to Mike Dickson’s new book, The More You Give, The More You Get giving to others, whether of your time or with your money—helps foster new friendships, community, and purpose in your life—which leaves people feeling more energized. This has a ripple effect with your children.
If you are seriously lacking with time—perhaps you are taking care of elderly parents and working full time. Ask your child/ren to research charities to find one they are excited about and sign up to give a small amount each month. Perhaps your child is an animal enthusiast? Your family can then sign up to donate $2.50 a month to an animal society—letting your child donate 50¢ from his allowance. Symonds says a good way to find a charity worth backing is through Changing the Present, which lists thousands of nonprofits and lets you search via topic or cause and even suggests gift ideas based on dollar amounts.
And finally, sometimes everyday acts of charity can teach a world of kindness.
“I believe that you can teach children empathy every day through small acts of kindness. Just helping someone with a door when their hands are full of kids or groceries, or giving someone in need a dollar, or helping someone who is lost, or preventing a child from falling off the slide, or occasionally taking care of a friend’s child whose parent works—these are all ways to show empathy,” Coppinger explains.
In the end, teaching empathy is critical—it’s as important as teaching a child to read. And, just as important, is instilling the confidence and enthusiasm that comes from knowing that one person can actually make a difference in this world.