Earlier this month, eight-year-old Anton was making his holiday wishlist. “A mini basketball,” he wrote carefully. “And a diamond necklace that spells ‘legend.'” Of course, those things are undeniably cool, but as a parent, year round and especially during the holiday crush, I want to help my kids foster a sense of gratitude and generosity and engagement with our community. So! I talked to three parents/experts, and here are their insights…
1. Giving can start small.
Kids can start by being kind and generous with the people around them. “There are so many ways to give,” says my friend E., a parent of two boys in Manhattan. “You can think about climate change which is macro, or that one kid sitting alone on the bus, which is immediate.” More ideas: Babysit your neighbors’ dog if they go out of town; jump up to clear the dinner table at a relative’s house; carry your grandma’s suitcase to the bedroom when she visits; invite the new kid in school to play at the park.
2. Consider volunteering with local organizations.
If you’re not sure where to begin, visit JustServe for volunteering projects. Whether or not you’re religious, another way to find volunteer opportunities is through churches. For example, Hope for New York outlines how to help in different ways, so you can choose a cause that you support. There’s also a newsletter called Doing Good Together with options to help as a family.
Recommends L., a Brooklyn-based parent of three: “At CHIPS, you can drop off pre-packaged meals kids can help assemble. Ruth’s Refuge is a non-profit for refugees with in-person home set-ups, recurring drives, and just generally the BEST women. And the Arab-American Family Support Center has a variety of ways to help face-to-face, including mentoring an English language learner — many women never have the opportunities to learn English like their husbands who learn at work or kids who learn at school, which can leave them isolated and unable to advocate for themselves, families, etc.” (Readers, please add other ideas in the comments!)
3. Be invisible hands.
Emphasize to your children that volunteering is a way to be part of their community, versus an after-school activity created for them. “I tell my kids, ‘Let’s be invisible hands,'” says E. “When we volunteer, we’re there to do whatever we can. Sometimes it’s just collapsing boxes for two hours.” And keep on participating, learning and growing. “Service is a skill that you practice and build on, like establishing any habit,” says L.
4. Find causes you find especially meaningful.
Think about issues that your loved ones hold near and dear to your hearts. “During the pandemic, my sons were hearing about Asian hate and attacks on the elderly,” says E. Her family connected with Heart of Dinner, which delivers care packages and food to East Asian elders in NYC. They have opportunities for volunteers of all ages to decorate bags and write cards for their clients.
As a family, you can also choose an issue to focus on annually. “This year, our family has been concentrating on food insecurity and donating to our local community fridge,” says activist and mother Brooke Williams. “It’s very much neighbors helping neighbors.”
5. Consider your kids’ particular skills.
My boys love nothing more than hosting lemonade stands — Toby especially is such a salesperson! — so they’ve held bake sales to raise money for causes like the ACLU, RAICES, and ocean cleanup. Other kids might be art-focused. “My younger son loves making little cards for everyone he knows,” says E. During quarantine, she helped him channel that enthusiasm to help older neighbors, who were unable to go outside. “I asked him, Is there a way that we can cheer them up? We made cards for those receiving meals from God’s Love We Deliver, and residents at the Bailey-Holt House. His notes really touched me.”
6. Look for the helpers.
Remember how Fred Rogers’s mother told him to look for the helpers? Showing children how people are working to better the world may help them feel reassured and encouraged. “Kids know the world is pretty broken; they’re not naive,” says E. “I say to my boys, ‘Do you see, all around the city there are these little havens, and people who are doing the work and using their creativity and skills, to help make someone’s burden a little lighter?’ Showing my kids that there are people waking up at 7 a.m. every Saturday and frying eggs, or handing out warm meals in the freezing cold… it’s heartening to see people all around the city coming together.”
7. Encourage children to donate, even a small amount.
Even the youngest kids can donate part of their allowance or birthday money to causes they care about. My friend Scott Thomas runs Arbor Brothers, which vets and supports non-profits doing service work in and around New York City. They publish a kid-friendly guide every year, which I’ve found hugely helpful.
You can also include your children if you’re able to give money as a family. “Every December, we sit down and set a budget for a certain amount of money we’ll be giving to organizations we care about,” says Brooke. “Each of us gets an equal amount, including our daughter. We pick organizations and talk together about why we think they’re important.”
8. Treat everyone around you with love.
Above all, model for your kids how to spread kindness throughout the day. “This morning, we showed up at a COVID testing site,” says Brooke. “This beleaguered guy is sitting behind the counter, and everyone’s in a bad mood. Just being human to him — a smile, an extra thank you, wishing him a happy holiday — all of a sudden, his whole face changes. As we spread those tiny crystals of positivity, the world gets better.”
This thoughtful approach applies to volunteering, too. At the food pantry where E.’s family volunteers, the pastor gives a team talk each morning. “She reminds us to always, always show love in the simplest things, even if you’re just guiding someone through a line or unpacking the applesauces,” says E. “Remember that you never know what people are going through. So, express love in the way in which you hand someone a plate or in which you open up the garbage bags to make it easier for the next person. People can sense that love. We’re all in a community together. We all need help in different ways. Everyone who comes through, they are are our neighbors. I hope my kids remember that.”
How do you teach your children about giving and helping? Feel free to start small, says Brooke: “Because if everybody does a little bit, a profound amount gets done.”