Lead By Example
Sabin says kids should grow up believing that helping others is a basic thing everyone does, like brushing your teeth or saying "please." But as with good manners, the only way your child will learn to give and care and share is if you teach him. The charity ball is in your court. And that's not an entirely natural lesson for today's parents.
Why? Because parents like me who were born in the 1970s or later were often raised (and have raised their kids) to focus on what the world can do for us as opposed to what we can do for the common good. Many of us have misinterpreted the push during the past several decades to build our children's self-esteem. "Parents kept piling on praise -- 'You are smart and beautiful and special!' -- and that can create selfish and entitled kids," explains Jenn Berman, Psy.D., a Parents advisor and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.
While teens have technically been volunteering more in recent years, the numbers drop significantly once they finish school. Too often community service is something they do because high schools require it -- and because it looks good on college applications, notes Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. The recession hurt participation too. A study by the National Conference on Citizenship reported that 72 percent of Americans responded to the downturn by cutting back on civic and group activities. And the overall decline in meaningful involvement has filtered down to kids as well. Boy Scout membership is less than half of what it was in 1972, while the number of Girl Scouts has declined by 30 percent since the '70s heyday.
I felt slightly alarmist, worrying that the fate of the country, of humanity even, might rest on that moment in December with my two preschoolers putting a gift under a tree for a little girl they didn't know. But some experts say such actions are crucial for raising the next generation right. "Consider what the world would be like if everyone walked around thinking it revolves around them," says Dr. Twenge.
On top of all that navel-gazing, children -- and all of us, really -- are becoming less and less connected to one another. Many of us live far from our extended family, so our kids don't witness the traditional caring and helping that happens when you shovel Grandma's walk or help Uncle Joe paint his garage or go to watch your cousin's dance recital. Worse, kids are growing up in a world where the term "community" means the number of followers you have on Twitter, "supporting causes" means clicking "like" on Facebook, and face-to-face interaction has been replaced by texting back and forth... sometimes while in the same room.
"Empathy, the primary emotion that inspires people to help others, doesn't develop through electronic media," says Barbara Dillbeck, director of Learning to Give, a global youth service movement that gets kids pumped about doing good. It comes from direct contact, which helps you build relationships, learn to accept others who are different from you, and become inspired to join a cause.