The Giving Workout: Teach Your Kid the Value of Volunteering

More of the Right Moves

Kid on bed with money

Lucy Schaeffer

The Core Workout

Getting in giving shape is just like ab work—you need to target the problem areas, push yourself, and do it regularly. And if you can, grab a friend to make it more fun. "Zero in on trouble spots by asking the organization what it needs most," says Anne Mernin, director of outreach at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey. For example, you might assume that a homeless shelter needs blankets when what it really needs is toothpaste. (Many food pantries and shelters list what they're looking for right on their website.) The process of finding out needs can be a learning experience in itself. This was the case with Claire St. Peter and Ann Barker, both age 9, in Kansas City, Kansas. While visiting the Ronald McDonald house, they found out the house needed new bedspreads. The girls enlisted two more friends to host a Breakfast for Bedspreads fund-raiser at a private home. Their hard work paid off: A week after the breakfast, the girls delivered a thick envelope to the Ronald McDonald House; in it was enough money to buy 30 new comforters.

For a child, learning of a real need and then fulfilling it teaches him that even small acts are powerful. "It moves the giving away from the child's experience and focuses instead on the person or group being served, which is a more reflective and rooted experience for children," says Mernin.

The Feel-Good Stretch

The work Conrad did on MLK Day was important, but it was only one day out of the whole year. In order for my kids to understand the power of giving back, we need to do little things to keep limber every day. It started at mealtime with all of us saying what we are grateful for. In one study, researchers at Hofstra University found that children who were taught to recognize why they were grateful felt happier and more thankful. When we feel happy, we are more likely to be able to give. "Kids respond when you frame the giving by saying you are grateful for what you have and happy to share it. What doesn't work is saying to a child, either directly or simply through your tone, that they are lucky to have what they have and should give to make up for their good fortune," says Wells McKnight. Guilting kids into giving makes that person feel bad, and we naturally avoid things that don't feel good. Frame giving in a positive way so your kids will be excited about spur-of-the-moment ideas.

My younger son, Dashiell, recently started getting an allowance. He also happens to be going through an intense Army phase. We talked to him about breaking his allowance into spending, saving, and sharing portions, and suggested that he use his sharing fund to help soldiers and their families, something he couldn't even fathom he could do. Now, each month, he donates $5 to, a website that lists military families' urgent needs. The families' requests range from the small but important, such as helping a soldier buy glasses for his daughter, to the tragic, like helping relatives buy plane tickets to attend funeral services. Dashiell's contribution earns him recognition: His name will be printed in Operation Homefront's annual report and he will be listed on the website as a "Homefront Hero." Seeing his name in print and online is teaching him that money isn't just for Pok?mon cards; it can be used to help others. He receives a monthly receipt for his donation. The first time it arrived in the mail, he was delighted to find an envelope in our mail with a red-white-and-blue logo. I explained that it was a piece of paper to help him keep track of his giving. He looked at it and said, "Okay, so I really want to start collecting these!"

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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