Starting this month with Thanksgiving, we approach the holidays with an increased awareness that there are many people in the world who are not as fortunate as we are. As a parent, you recognize that; however, children often have a more difficult time understanding the needs of others.

As the holidays approach, it’s a good time to start teaching children the importance of contributing to the community by helping those who need it.

Expanding Your Child’s World

A child’s world is comparatively small, consisting of family, classmates, and teachers. It’s normal for children to not think of others outside their world and it’s difficult for them to imagine someone living a life that’s completely different from their own experiences. Science Daily cited a study that showed kids’ brains had to reach a certain level of maturity for them to start thinking of others.

Happily, humans are born with the ability to show kindness and empathy. According to a report on National Public Radio (NPR), “We have neurons in our brains, called mirror neurons, and they respond in the same way when we experience pain, say by being pricked with a needle, as they do when we see someone else experience the same thing.

“But kindness is about more than sensing someone else’s pain. It’s also about wanting to do something about it — and then actually being helpful,” and that’s something that parents can teach their children. As a child’s brain develops, parents can help to transform their children’s brains to understand concepts like empathy and compassion, and that learning process can start as early as age six. 

Teaching by Example

As every parent knows, it’s always best to teach by example. Even if parents don’t currently participate in community service, volunteering to help whatever organization you and your child choose should be a family affair. PBS for Parents has the following suggestions:

Be a Giving Role Model – Children love to copy their parents, so let them follow your lead as a volunteer. When a parent or guardian is involved, the child often looks forward to the activity even more, and you get to share this special time with your child. A community cleanup is a great way to get the whole family involved, no matter what age. 

Find Something Fun – Community service doesn’t have to be a chore. Find something that interests your entire family. Look for something that matches your family’s dynamics. Many children love animals, so find an animal shelter or wildlife rescue that needs donations of food, towels, or allows volunteers to walk the dogs. 

Start With Something Easy – Volunteering doesn’t have to take all day if you don’t want it to. Pick up a gift for a toy drive or Adopt-a-Family program. You can take five minutes and ask your child to go through toys and clothing in your house that they don’t use anymore. Although children may first resist giving up their possessions, they may get excited about the idea of helping when they see how much another child loves the toys your child has outgrown.

Make it Part of the Family Schedule – Family life can be busy so you may have to build volunteering into your schedule so that it becomes a priority. Making it part of the family routine, will instill the notion that your family places a high value on giving their time and helping those in need. Plus, since it’s a family thing, make sure that your children have a say in the activity your family chooses.

Learn From Previous Generations – Senior centers are great for older children to spend time talking, reading, or even watching TV with seniors who may not have relatives living nearby. Another way to interact with and learn from older generations is to deliver meals to homebound individuals through Meals on Wheels, which even has the opportunity in some cities to do your deliveries on bike instead of in the car. 

Enlist Your Child’s Friends – Once you catch the giving spirit, consider asking your child’s friends to join in. You can build care packages for the troops overseas or for homeless shelter residents. Or get your extended family involved by calling Grandma, Grandpa, aunts and uncles and ask each one to pick up sample-size toiletries or other items that would go nicely in a package. When everyone is on board, your child can see how important giving is to friends and family.

See the Impact – Volunteering or doing community service can benefit your child tremendously, as well as help create a family bond. For some children, a simple smile or “thank you” from the recipient goes a long way in making them feel good about what they’ve done. Discuss the volunteer experience with your child after the fact, to help him process what he learned. Also, remember to reinforce the positive message that you’re trying to instill.

Here are some activities in which families can engage and which will benefit the community:

  • Clean up a park or the bank of a river
  • Plant trees or flowers in your local community
  • Serve food at a homeless shelter
  • Deliver meals to people who are elderly or ill at home
  • Clean up a school or other public building
  • Donate kids’ craft kits to a local children’s hospital
  • Gather your child’s friends and some classic games and organize a board game night at your local nursing home
  • Decorate placemats for Meals on Wheels
  • Go through the books your children feel they’ve outgrown and donate them to the waiting room of a local dentist or doctor
  • Donate gently used stuffed animals your child feels they can part with to a local firehouse or police station for children in emergency situations
  • Make Care Kits for the homeless; the kits might include band aids, sunscreen, beef jerky, toothbrush, toothpaste, and wet wipes

Other ideas for contributing to your community can be found on the websites Prep Scholar, PTO Today, and Sign Up Genius

With Thanksgiving and all the end-of-year festivities upon us, it’s easy to forget those in need. It’s also the ideal time to start showing children how they can improve the lives of others in the community and give the less-fortunate a reason to be thankful.