By Melissa Stefanec
It’s not all about me. It never was.
However, I’m almost certain there was a time when I thought that way—a time when the only lens I saw the world through was my own. I didn’t always think about others and their experiences or obstacles. Once, I let snap judgments, prejudices and bad information consciously determine what I said and did.
There were multiple things that would reshape my worldview. One of the most important was my choice to start volunteering. In my life, I’ve volunteered with a diverse group of organizations and each one changed who I was and who I would become. I owe a debt of gratitude to my civic engagement.
When I set out on my parenting journey, I wasn’t sure of a lot. However, I was sure of a few things. One of those things was: I wanted my children to be engaged citizens. I hoped they would make this world a better place for everyone. To do that, they needed to be capable of empathy.
But raising human beings to be empathetic is a tall order. Human beings are born in survival mode. Self-preservation is a matter of nature. Recognizing that societal advancements were gained through community action and combined efforts isn’t something most children can get their heads around.
Thus, I knew I would have to start small. I would have to nurture little volunteers. So, almost as soon as they could walk steadily, my kids started volunteering.
Finding the time to volunteer was a challenge. Finding age-appropriate activities was harder still. I made a few bad decisions, but I’ve managed to raise kids who see value in volunteer work. So, I wanted to share some tips for raising the next generation of civic-minded citizens.
Tips for raising kids who give back to their communities:
• Model the behavior
Actions speak volumes. If your kids see you volunteering with enthusiasm and passion, they are more likely to want to join you. To make volunteering a family affair, find an organization that can support volunteers of all ages. To start, volunteer solo. Then, once you have the lay of the land, let your kids join you.
Make it teachable (and tell both sides of the story).
When you’re volunteering, you’re often faced with complex topics and situations. As a parent, take the opportunity to discuss these topics with your child (in an age-appropriate way). Young minds are often hungry to discuss grownup issues, so don’t be afraid to capitalize on the opportunity.
• Use birthday gifts
If you have reservations about volunteering your family’s time, consider using birthday parties as a way to give back. My kids have shared wish-lists for local animal shelters in lieu of receiving gifts. After the party, we have them make the big delivery. That way, they can take pride in their personal sacrifice and understand how good “doing good” feels.
• Make kits
This is a great project for young children or people who aren’t comfortable around strangers. When my kids were young, we made kits for people who were experiencing homelessness. I saved up hotel toiletries and looked for sales at stores to fill care packages. We then assembled the kits and gave them to people who needed them. Care kits work for a lot of different groups and organizations.
• Make it fun (and purposeful)
Whatever activity you participate in, make it fun. Give your kids challenges. Set goals. Make it a little competitive. Don’t be afraid to have fun during volunteer work. You know what your child enjoys, so look for ways to weave that into a volunteer opportunity.
• Find their passions (and don’t expect them to align with yours).
If you want your kids to be engaged, find activities that excite them. As a parent, that may mean dedicating time and energy to something you aren’t excited by. That’s OK.
• Talk to them about the greater good.
It’s important for your kids to understand how their actions make a very specific difference. Take the time to explain how their actions change the world. Tell them how much their time and effort matter. Make their impact tangible. Remark on their accomplishments.
• Bring them separately.
If you’re volunteering with multiple young children, you might want to bring them to volunteer activities separately. This will give you the opportunity to wrangle and redirect without losing your patience. It will also allow your child to be the center of your attention and undoubtedly make them feel special.
• Broadcast your pride.
Most kids want to make their parents proud. When your kids contribute to their community, praise them for it. Brag to other people about it. If there is one place a little bragging is OK, it has to be in this situation.
Talk to your kids about how they felt after.
Volunteering can stir up a lot of emotions. When we give back, we can find ourselves confronting some of society’s harshest realities. It’s important to talk to your kids about their feelings. You want to make sure your kids understand why you want them to help a specific group. Let them see the world as it is and ask them what they plan to do to change it for the better.