People have a unique propensity to invest in others’ wellbeing. This tendency to give back is not necessarily something we come by naturally; rather, we build it through habit and practice. Just like most of our habits, our serving habits begin to take shape during childhood based on what we see, talk about, and do. It’s crucial that you take advantage of this stage in your kids’ lives to encourage them to be as charitable as possible. If you’d like to learn more, read our step-by-step guide on how to teach kids to give back to their community.
Foster Empathy in Conversation
Starting when your kids are young, make space for important conversations that will build their tendency towards empathy. Kids’ worlds are naturally very small early on—little bigger than their home and their families—and broadening it early helps them keep other people in mind.
Talk About Other People
Start this broadening by talking about other people with your kids. This may seem simple, but it’s surprising how little parents do this. Try to talk about how people around you are doing, and if appropriate, mention difficulties they may be going through. This could look like talking about a neighbor who is going through a foreclosure or giving your kids some insight into family members’ health issues. Of course, only discuss age-appropriate topics. Your five-year-old may not react well to hearing the details of their grandparent’s health struggle, for example. But in general, turning your kids’ attentions towards other people will slowly make a focus on others reflexive and prevent a habit of selfishness.
Read Books with Diverse Characters
One way to avoid the starkness of difficult, real-world issues is to introduce them through literature meant for kids. Stories written by authors from a minority community, with unconventional characters, are excellent for getting kids to consider other kinds of people they wouldn’t have a chance to meet otherwise. Books give parents a tool for creating bridges that use kids’ own language to ease them into caring for others. The best thing about using books is that this can easily become an activity they take charge of, picking their own books and reading entire series that add to their perspective.
Talk About Difficult Issues & Encourage Questions
As they read and you turn their attention towards others, don’t shy away from the tough conversations if they’re ready to hear more. As your children get older and more mature, they reach a point when you can be more straightforward with them. That said, as the parent you still have the power to address societal issues such as racism, violence, and mental illness in your own tailored words.
Additionally, it’s natural that, as they get a grasp of the world, they’ll be curious why things work the way they do. When they ask why that man is walking with a grocery cart, take that opportunity to increase their compassion by thoughtfully explaining what may be happening in his life. Perhaps most importantly, applaud them for asking a question. Rewarding their focus on others will inspire them to get involved in their community as they grow.
Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed that people behave as they do in part because they observe others’ behavior and use it as a model for themselves. To give your child the best social model they could have, strive to act and speak empathetically. This can be difficult as we go through each day. Even though you sometimes want to lower your guard, consistency on your part will help your child, who looks up to you, become focused on others.
Though kids can act charitably at a young age, as they reach pre-adolescence (around ten), they’re mature enough to get involved in small, structured acts of giving back.
Task Them With Caring for a Pet
Kids get really excited about having a pet. Take advantage of their enthusiasm, and give them the responsibility of feeding, cleaning, and giving attention to the pet. This instills in them that caring for something or someone isn’t a one-time thing, but rather it’s a commitment that requires consistency. When their excitement fades, caring for a pet will challenge them to flex their caring muscles even when they don’t feel like it.
Have Them Clean Up After Themselves
Just as caring for a pet is an in-home way to boost their giving back, teaching them to clean up after themselves accomplishes the same thing. Cleaning up their own messes ensures they don’t feel entitled and provides them a disciplined reflex to act instead of deferring responsibility. If they don’t push off their responsibilities, they’re less likely in the long run to pretend like their community’s needs don’t pertain to them.
Introduce Them to Charity Work
The most direct way to teach kids to give back to their community is to get into the community in a structured fashion.
Bring Them Volunteering
Have your kids tag along for a fun day of volunteering to model charitable work and get them actively serving. Volunteering somewhere like a homeless shelter lets them tangibly contact many kinds of people and gives them the satisfaction of helping others. And with you there for every step, they can become comfortable with community service and ask you any questions that will inevitably come to mind.
Enlist Their Help Delivering a Donation
Helping you deliver donations to places like a domestic violence agency or school could also give kids a taste of service. For example, if you were donating bulk school supplies to an area school drive and wanted them to be involved, it’s simple enough to enlist their help bringing the donation into the facility. When you’re there, use this opportunity to show them behind the curtain, so to speak, so charitable work doesn’t seem mysterious in the future.
Encourage Them to Take Initiative
As they grow into their independence-seeking adolescence, make sure to encourage their charitable initiatives.
Promote School Leadership
They could initiate their own school program or event. Encourage them to think through how they would like to use their school to organize giving back, then let them plan. They could start a recycling initiative, organize a fundraiser or supply drive, or join a community service club. The options are numerous—this is a precious time when you see how the values you instilled in them are put to use.
Let Them Plan a Charitable Activity
They can also take initiative outside of school. Get them in touch with a local charity, help them build relationships, and then see where that takes them. They could end up organizing a community yard sale or car wash that supports charity. Again, the options are endless. Who knows where taking charge of giving back will take them?