Susie Kirsch works for the Red Cross and volunteers in her community. But she was still surprised when her 2nd grader started a charity with three classmates. At recess, the girls decided to collect toys for a local shelter for abused children and nearby children’s hospital.
Although parental support was needed – the adults managed a Facebook page and set up an Amazon wish list – all direction and momentum came from four small girls. The result? More than 700 gifts that brightened the holidays for some deserving kids, and a commitment to do even more this year.
Kirsch is justifiably proud of the girls. But helping a good cause is only one of many reasons parents encourage children to give back. Getting involved with a cause can help a child feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment, gives them an escape from academic pressures, helps them make friends and learn new skills, and provides life lessons that may make them more empathetic and kind as adults.
Giving back takes many forms so you can find (or create) an activity that suits both your child’s interests and your family’s values. Some kids give money, such as a percentage of their allowance or birthday cash. Others give things, such as donating their gently used toys. Kids can fundraise via a lemonade stand, car wash or dance-a-thon. And, perhaps most beneficial of all, they can give their time by volunteering.
You’ve heard this before: be the change you want to see. It works for encouraging kids to eat vegetables or brush their teeth and it works for getting them interested in helping others. When you give blood, donate to a non-profit, or volunteer, talk to your child about what you do and why. Find ways to include them, such as letting them help choose the charities your family supports.
Some kids find their causes naturally: a loved one’s illness; a disaster on the news; or something in the community, like litter at the playground. They see something wrong and instinctively want to help.
Others will need more guidance. Start with your child’s interests: is your daughter passionate about soccer, does your son love firetrucks, are you a family of animal lovers? Your soccer star could raise money to buy equipment for an underfunded team. Your future firefighter could bring cookies to the local firehouse to brighten their day. Animal shelters often need volunteers and usually welcome donations of food, blankets and toys.
How much you are involved will largely be determined by your child’s age and capabilities. Fundraising or volunteering “by” a preschooler will probably be a family affair. Your school-aged child might join a school, church or community service club so all you have to provide is permission and transportation. A teen will have the most opportunities, whether joining an established group, starting a local chapter of a national organization, e.g. Red Cross Club, or even inventing their own charity.
In any case, your guidance can help them plan and prepare. Encourage them to research what their organization achieves, or whether existing groups already serve the need they are hoping to meet. Talk about benefits and drawbacks of joining an ongoing effort vs beginning one.
It’s fine to start with no bigger goal than “I want to help.” But defining an objective will help you measure progress and set parameters. Encourage your child to articulate something motivational yet realistic: “I want to raise $250 for flood victims” or “I want to donate 25 backpacks with school supplies.”
Don’t forget your own goals: what do you want them to experience? Are you hoping your son gains confidence (consider door-to-door fundraising, with supervision), do you want your daughter to make new friends (try a community-based club), or show a privileged child other sides of life (join an organization serving the less fortunate)?
Having goals can help your child persevere if their interest wanes. Or you can turn it into a teachable moment: sticking with commitments.
Some people find a cause early and stick with it forever. For others, a natural stopping point arrives: a goal is met, or other priorities emerge, such as grades, sports, or a job.
Parents sometimes need to step in and end a child’s commitment. If your child truly loses interest, it may be more productive to redirect them to a new cause. And watch for signs that your child is becoming overwhelmed – if their cause is too large, sad or progress is hard to see, it may be time to step away.
Giving back by volunteering, donating and fundraising can establish lifelong habits that benefit your child and the world around them. New friends, skills and experiences enrich your child’s life even while they focus on helping others.