Many of us want to teach our children to be, in the words of Gandhi, "the change they wish to see in the world." But it can be difficult to find meaningful ways for children to contribute to service projects and community initiatives.
While food drives and donations support charitable organizations, it’s often hard for children to understand where their contributions go (especially if mom or dad purchases and drops off the canned goods at school or church).
The best way to instill a commitment to service is to start at home. Encouraging small acts of kindness, like helping a family member who has had a rough day or caring for a pet, can teach even the smallest children the power of caring. As children grow, you can help them develop empathy and support good causes with these five tips:
Give kids a vote.
Sit down as a group and discuss whether there are any individuals, organizations or causes that you are especially interested in helping. What talents and skills do you and your children have that will be most beneficial to them? Even small acts, like donating extra food and blankets to the animal shelter, will have meaning for children, if they choose the cause.
While there are numerous worthy global charities, young children may find it easier to see the value in helping those in their neighborhood. Shoveling snow or pulling weeds for an elderly neighbor (even if you have to assist in the effort) or running an errand for a sick friend will have an immediate impact on both your child and the neighbor. Use the satisfaction that this experience brings as a springboard for talking about how to serve a broader community.
Host a service party.
Show kids that joining forces can have a big impact—and be fun. Invite neighborhood children to your home, a local park or a community center to participate in a service project. Use the web to research the needs of local service groups and find an activity that’s appropriate for the age group. Younger children can make thank you cards for service members or decorate bags for distribution through Meals on Wheels. As children mature, they will be able to prepare simple bag lunches for distribution at homeless shelters. Whatever you choose, the key is to make this a hands-on event rather than a simple donation drop-off.
When kids have completed their service project, gather them in a circle to talk about who will benefit from their service and what other problems their “kid power” can address. Discussing their projects and putting words to their feelings will make their experience more meaningful. Keep the tone fun and rewarding by playing games or singing songs and thanking the children for their efforts. Service is as much about the process as the product, so create a desire to do more!
If your kids have charm to spare, spread the love by bringing them to a local senior center. Whether by participating in a game of bingo or singing together, young and old will benefit.
Serve the Earth.
You don't have to scale mountains or brave tropical rain forests to help save the world's endangered species. Start closer to home with activities like making a bird feeder for your own backyard, cleaning up litter in your neighborhood, or other activities that help the earth. Older kids can participate in projects like removing invasive plant species; contact your local parks and recreation department to find out how.
Research suggests that families who volunteer together forge stronger ties. Also, kids who become involved in community service develop greater self-esteem and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors in their teen years. Learn more about how you can take action as a family.