In this age of selfies, societal messages can tell us our worth is tied to the superficial approval and envy we obtain from “friends” who barely know us. In this environment, it’s acceptable to believe we’re the center of our own worlds. Ironically, experts tell us that the acceptance and achievement we crave can actually come from helping others instead of focusing solely on ourselves.
But our children may be better served by cultivating a giving spirit. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, says, “The ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction and the ability to bounce back from adversity.”
With empathy being so vital, how can we encourage our children to connect with causes larger than themselves? Experts say the task is not as difficult as we might think, and it can provide the elusive family time we all want.
Children are Born to Care
The toddler who weeps at the sight of an upset playmate. The preschooler who offers his teddy bear to a sick sibling. The school-aged child who grabs a sponge when mom is washing the car. Children are hard-wired with the spirit of giving. Yet as they grow, children receive society’s message that it’s sometimes unsafe or unwise to care. Fortunately, families can bolster the behaviors that foster empathy.
Research shows that caregivers who openly express warmth and compassion raise more empathic children. This process begins at birth. Routinely giving a patient, timely and consistent response to an infant’s cry or a toddler’s skinned knee gives the child a message that helping others is important. When a child feels secure, it’s easier for him to develop empathy.
Experts say the first opportunity for a child to help others is often in his own home, so they recommend assigning household responsibility. “Children need jobs,” says author and pediatrician Dr. William Sears. “Once a child learns a sense of responsibility for the household, a sense of responsibility to society will come naturally in the next stage of development.”
Kids Help Others and Themselves
Children who reach out to others enjoy an increased sense of well-being, self-worth and optimism. Helping others builds up a child’s defense system against temptation and stress. Kids learn that it feels good to do the right thing, so it’s easier to say “no” to the wrong things. With their personal worth affirmed through kindness to others, they don’t need to search for worth in material possessions or poor choices. Away from video games, social media and television, families come to know and appreciate each other in new and valuable ways.
Mary Thoele, author of Family Serve: Volunteer Opportunities for Families, says, “Volunteering is one of the ‘loudest’ actions you can take to show children what it truly means to be a contributing member of a community. By role-modeling this type of behavior, caregivers are beginning a tradition of compassion that can be passed on from one generation to the next.”
Even Busy Families Can Give
Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering, says finding time to help others is easier than you may think. The key is to take a careful look at your current activities and find ways to incorporate volunteering into those events. For example, families who already enjoy crafts can make get well cards or toys. Supplies for a neighbor in need can be gathered while doing your own errands. Families who are animal lovers may enjoy fostering animals for deployed military personnel.
Experts suggest starting small, with a one-time/no further obligation commitment. If all family members enjoy the small experience and want to repeat the process, consider adding on, but always be conscious of overcommitting. Studies show that when giving to others becomes too large a commitment or obligation, the potential benefits are lost. It’s easier and more comfortable to increase the commitment level if you find the time than to cut back and feel guilty because you’ve taken on too much.
Teaching children to care and offer their time, talents and aid to others is a win-win situation. Developing that innate giving spirit will arm a child with skills that can defend him against the world’s stresses for years to come.
Charitable Ideas for Busy Families
Create for Others. Many organizations seek families to provide lovingly crafted items, handwritten letters, heartfelt drawings and cards. Most even offer step-by-step instructions. Typically, families complete the items and mail them to the organization, which distributes them where they’re needed. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Cards for Hospitalized Kids delivers handmade cards to hospitalized kids. Over 100,000 children have received cards from all over the world. Although families can use their own creativity to make the cards, the site offers many helpful suggestions. cardsforhospitalizedkids.com
- Project Linus provides handmade blankets to children who are ill, traumatized or would benefit from a comfort item. The site offers easy, “no sew” patterns for kids. Adults may need to cut the fabric for younger children. projectlinus.org
- Operation Gratitude encourages families to create cards, drawings and letters that are added to care packages for members of the military, veterans and first responders. Many recipients say the handwritten items are the most cherished part of the package. operationgratitude.com
Sponsor a Family, Child or Animal. Consider sponsoring a less fortunate family, child or animal during the holidays, in an emergency or year-round.
- The Box Project matches sponsors to families in need living in rural parts of the country. Sponsors regularly mail household and school supplies, clothing or other needed items. boxproject.org
- Children International can match sponsor families with a child in poverty. Sponsor families provide monetary support, school supplies and letters. children.org
- PACT for Animals and Dogs on Deployment match foster families with pets whose owners are deployed or hospitalized. pactforanimals.org and dogsondeployment.org
Shannon Dean is a freelance writer. She taught her sons to knit so they could make blanket squares for Warm Up America.