Get an Early Start
From infancy on, there are countless opportunities to encourage your child to look beyond herself -- whether it's sharing in playgroup, telling the truth, or treating people kindly. Read books together, such as The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, about the rewards of generosity, or The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, about a creature who inspires a boy to care about preserving the forest. When I attended a conference of young environmental activists recently, a speaker asked everyone who loved The Lorax to stand up -- and the entire audience rose.
Look for teachable moments when you can help your kids put themselves in others' shoes, think independently, speak their minds, and take action. If your child hogs the cookies, it's a good chance to talk about the basic principle of fairness in a way that sets the stage for later discussions about what's right and wrong in the world.
When John Holland-McCowan, of Los Gatos, California, was 4 years old, he told his mother that he didn't need toys to have fun at the beach, and she replied that some kids didn't even have any toys. He started crying and insisted, "That's not right." So he decided to start saving his allowance to buy toys for needy children and encouraged his friends to do the same.
But John wanted to play with the children, too, so his mother, Anne, arranged for him to meet a boy from a shelter for abused and neglected children, and the two began seeing each other once a week. "I've always been involved in volunteering," says Holland-McCowan. "Children often want to help, but they don't know how. They want to talk to their parents and hear what they have to say about it."
When John was 5, his mother helped him form an organization called Kids Cheering Kids that recruits young volunteers to play with kids in shelters and pediatric units in hospitals. "One of John's good friends is a child with cerebral palsy whom he met through the program," says Holland-McCowan. "If you're 5 or 6 and you learn to relate to kids in wheelchairs, that's something you bring with you all of your life."