Every holiday season, my family enlists the help of neighbors to “adopt” a needy family — sometimes two. And every year, our son Kiernan has helped, passing out the flyers, wrapping gifts and wearing a huge grin as he helps carry everything to be dropped off. When we started the tradition, he was in preschool, and we wondered: Was he old enough to understand about giving? And is there a benefit to starting so young?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Experts agree: Children as young as 3 can understand the fundamentals behind charitable acts, such as sharing, being kind and helping. And having your children involved in helping others not only strengthens those fundamentals, but can help them feel the beginnings of power and self-esteem. “Kids like being ‘big’ enough to help,” says Barbara Lynn, a preschool teacher at Lowell Elementary School in Seattle. She sees this especially as they are learning at school, starting to share and “serving” others at snack time.
Create a cycle
Most parents won’t be surprised to learn that preschool-age children learn from watching and listening to mom and dad. So it makes sense that parents involved in charitable activities raise kids who, in turn, do the same. In a recent survey conducted by The Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 700 charities, and Youth Service America, an alliance of groups committed to encouraging youth philanthropy, there was a direct correlation between getting involved in charitable activities at an early age and doing those same things as adults. What’s more, when parents volunteer or donate with their kids, they create a “cycle of service,” with almost 70 percent of adults who volunteer reporting that they started out doing so with their parents.
So how can you get your young one started? First, try to match that first foray into volunteering with their interests. Do they love the zoo? Are they worried about the environment? Do they love to read? The answers can help you find charities or programs that might be aligned with their interests. Then you can start raising money, getting dirty or getting involved!
A few good ideas
When she was 4, Alexandra Scott, a cancer patient, decided to have a lemonade stand to raise money to give to her doctors so they could help other kids, too. The resulting charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (alexslemonade.org), is still going strong, years after Scott’s death. Whether it is lemonade or cookies you make together, you and your child can turn a nice day into a fundraiser. A “penny drive” can also be a great way to teach your child not only about giving, but about the value of money. Help your child decorate a jar and let them put all your pennies in it for a month or two. Then let them help you count the coins and have them watch you send that money to the charity they have chosen.
If you aren’t ready to have your child help raise money, you can still teach them about charitable giving by participating in one of the many “adoption” programs. I still remember the pictures and letters from the foster child my parents “adopted.” Now you can also “adopt” owls, frogs, dolphins, lemurs and other animals, and in exchange, get a certificate and information about the animal you are helping. You can even “adopt” an acre of rainforest.
Another option? Buy a “share” in a goat or other animal through the Heifer Project, which will then give the animal to a family in the developing world. Your child can help you pick out what animal to give, and you can use it as an opportunity to teach your child about how other people live across the world.
Your garden can be a great place to teach your child not only about growing, but about giving. This year, when you plan your veggies, plant an extra row for the hungry. Local food banks are often low on fresh produce and many of them really appreciate such donations. Have your child help pick out the seeds, plant and harvest the produce, then let her come with you to drop it off. Or have him decorate a special bag and help pick apples from your tree to go into that bag to donate. Programs like Lettuce Link in Seattle and Plant an Extra Row in Pierce County have lists of food banks that accept fresh produce (not all of them do). These programs often have special row markers and free seeds, too, as does the national Plant a Row for the Hungry program.
Don’t have a garden of your own? Schedule a family volunteer trip to Mother Earth Farm in Orting, a farm where produce is grown specifically to be given to the hungry.
Birthday parties and holidays are all about fun — but they can also be an opportunity for giving and charity. Your child can get ready for the winter holidays by finding toys he no longer loves to pass on to kids who are less fortunate. If your child usually gets a money gift for the holidays, you might think about giving them “gift money,” too — a little extra they can only spend on someone else or a charity. For a dog lover’s birthday party, ask each parent to bring a can of dog food, and then have your child take the food with you to the local Humane Society. Halloween used to mean the iconic orange “trick-or-treat for UNICEF” boxes — and 60 years later, it still can.
Whatever you decide, getting your child involved in giving can help strengthen not only their skills, but your family, as well.
Kathryn Russell Selk lives, works, writes, volunteers and donates as much as she can with the help of her 7-year-old son and 23-month-old daughter (and her husband) in Seattle.
• Information on Mother Earth Farm and Pierce County’s Plant an Extra Row program
• Plant a Row for the Hungry (national program of the Garden Writers Association)
• Many zoos have “adoptions.” The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has a program; so does Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. (At the top of the home page, under “Support your zoo!” click “Adopt an animal.”)
• National Wildlife Federation: Adopt lemurs, meerkats, owls and many other critters.
• Nature Conservancy: You can choose an acre of rainforest or other habitat in need of preservation in Africa, Costa Rica, even the United States; coral adoptions also are available.
• Heifer Project information.
• The Whale Museum in the San Juan Islands has an orca “adoption” program for whales your child might be able to see on a whalewatching tour.
Other programs and resources
• Unicef “orange box” and other information.
• Plan International allows you to “adopt” a needy child in another country for a certain dollar amount per month.