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Kids Who Care

Gazing out of an airplane window over Washington State, 5-year-old Adam Werbach was awestruck by the lush green carpet of the Northwest forest -- so different from his home in Tarzana, California. But then he noticed bare patches in the forest that looked like giant footprints. When he asked his parents if a monster had created them, they explained that the huge brown areas were timber clear-cuts made by big logging companies.

Three years later, his parents showed him a petition they had received in the mail from the Sierra Club. It asked for the resignation of then-President Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, who had frequently belittled environmental issues. Reminded of the clear-cuts he'd seen on the plane, Adam brought the petition to his second-grade class and then went door-to-door with it in his neighborhood. Within a week, he'd gathered 500 signatures -- and Watt did eventually resign.

Encouraged by this early success, Adam formed an environmental club at his middle school and then a national network of concerned teenagers when he was in high school. In 1996, at age 23, he became the Sierra Club's youngest-ever national president.

Although Adam Werbach followed an exceptional path, America's future depends on our raising children who will become "soulful citizens," with the skills, confidence, and commitment to make a difference in the world. For the past 30 years, I've studied why young people do or don't concern themselves with big issues such as homelessness, the environment, and quality education. Most of the time, kids learn to care when the entire family is involved. Children don't always do what you say, but it's amazing how faithfully they'll do what you do.

Of course, we want our children to be compassionate and responsible, but often we don't do volunteer work ourselves because our lives are just too busy. However, the payoff is priceless: Studies have shown that socially active kids do better academically and that volunteering for only one hour a week makes a child 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, or to engage in destructive behavior.

"Bringing a child to a soup kitchen or to clean up a local park is one of the best things a parent can do," says Steven A. Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, an alliance of more than 200 national and local organizations. "Working mothers, in particular, find volunteering with their kids rewarding because it's a two-for-one experience," he says. "They can spend time with their kids and fulfill their desire to do something for their community at the same time." What your children learn about social commitment -- at 10, 6, or even 4 -- can shape the rest of their lives.

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."

Young children naturally look around their community and notice what's wrong with it. In fact, they may focus on inequities in the world that adults have become desensitized to. "Volunteering with children is an eye-opening experience," says Culbertson. "We have a homeless breakfast program at our church, and lots of parents bring their children. They ask the questions adults are too embarrassed to ask or don't even think about, such as 'Why did that person become homeless?'"

When 10-year-old Aubyn Burnside, of Hickory, North Carolina, found out that most foster children move frequently and have to carry their belongings in garbage bags, she started an organization called Suitcases for Kids. Within a year, the Burnside family had collected, cleaned, and distributed more than 17,000 suitcases. The program has spread to all 50 states, and hundreds of thousands of suitcases have been collected all together. "Social workers cheer when they see us coming," says her mother, Linda. "The program has become a very important part of our family."

Of course, you don't want to upset your kids unnecessarily, but you can't -- and wouldn't want to -- shield them forever from all social and personal problems. Many kids lie awake in bed thinking about poverty, war, or homelessness, and if they keep their worries to themselves, they can become overwhelmed and feel powerless to change things. You can help simply by talking about public issues that come up in a way that makes it clear that people can do something about them. Tell your child that problems can have creative common solutions, such as forming a baby-sitting co-op, helping pass a school-bond levy, or improving the local recycling program.

When 6-year-old Michael Crisler, of Denver, heard about all of the people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, he thought, "We're neighbors. Neighbors are supposed to help each other." With his parents' assistance, he went door-to-door, and store to store, and raised $37,000 -- more than any other individual in the country -- for the victims and their families. Now 11, Michael is promoting the 168 Pennies Campaign -- asking people to donate one cent for each person killed in the bombing -- to raise money for the children's section of the memorial being built in their honor.

As with homework and religious observance, your children may not always be in the mood to participate with you, but with your encouragement, they'll learn that even if they start out just going through the motions, good things will end up happening.

Recently, my wife and I helped deliver flyers for a friend's Seattle City Council campaign. At first, our 10-year-old son, Will, didn't want to join us, but he ended up turning our task into a game, racing up and down apartment stairways and halls. A few days later, when our friend narrowly won, Will was delighted to have played a part in the victory.

Jackie Montreuil, of Farmington, New York, showed her 4-year-old daughter, Jillian, a newspaper article about children who had helped save a whale named Keiko. "I wanted to do something to help others too," says Jillian. With her mother's help, she decorated a jar with stickers and a ribbon, and then she collected pennies from family and friends. With the $7.50 proceeds, Jillian decided to buy some groceries and donate them to the local food bank. Montreuil also encouraged her 7-year-old son, Ben, to give 25 cents of his weekly allowance to a charity of his choice, often the local animal shelter.

Children like the Montreuils, who help others in small ways--giving old toys away when they get new ones, collecting canned goods at Thanksgiving or change for Unicef at Halloween, donating last year's jacket to a coat drive -- become more receptive to helping others in need later on. Step by step, children will learn that their efforts can do more -- for themselves and for the world -- than they ever imagined.

"We always tried to give our kids a sense of where they were in the world -- in family history, geography, and time," says Adam Werbach's father, Mel. Spend family time with older relatives and other women and men who've lived with courage and integrity. Too often, children learn in school about a handful of social leaders who seem unrealistically heroic. Remind your child that even Martin Luther King had his doubts, for example, and describe how ordinary people -- including you and other grown-ups and kids they know -- have changed the world. You can explain that these people realized that they didn't have to know everything or wait for the perfect situation before taking action. Instead, they learned as they went along, persisted despite setbacks, and trusted that their efforts would eventually ripple outward. Their stories can help your kids realize that they, too, can lead lives worthy of their convictions.

Many socially active adults say that they saw a steady flow of culturally, racially, and economically diverse visitors in their homes as children and that they learned about the wider world from listening to adult conversations. Some guests may even become mentors and expose your children to ideas you may not have thought of.

After Jason Crowe, 12, of Newburgh, Indiana, lost his grandmother to cancer three years ago, a psychologist friend inspired him to start publishing a bimonthly kids' newsletter to raise money for cancer research. With articles on conservation, nonviolence, religious tolerance, racial unity, and animal rights, The Informer now has subscribers in 29 states and 12 countries. "Sometimes children can hear things better when their parents aren't the ones saying them," says Jason's mother, Cindy.

Even if you introduce your children to ways that they can help others, they may end up taking the lead. When Bobbi Coffman, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, saw an ad for a shelter in nearby Baltimore that needed volunteers, she asked if her 8-year-old daughter, Amber, could help out too. "We began going once a week, and she learned that homeless people are just like anyone else," says Coffman. "Because the shelter was overcrowded, Amber saw men waiting in line who had to be turned away, and she wanted to do something to help them."

At age 10, Amber started a program called Happy Helpers for the Homeless and got some other kids and adults to help her make and distribute lunches to homeless people on the streets on weekends. "It's been in operation for seven years now, and there are branches all over the country," says Coffman. "Amber has never missed a week, no matter what the weather was like. She's done it all herself -- all I do is drive her. Amber says that she's going to help the homeless for the rest of her life."

Sometimes, of course, kids become motivated on their own. After 9-year-old Melissa Poe, of Nashville, saw a television show about a town in which the air had become so polluted that people had to wear masks, she started worrying a lot about the environment. "Voting was about as political as my husband and I had ever been," says her mother, Trisha, but they knew they shouldn't minimize their daughter's concern. "Instead, we told her, 'Since you're upset about it, why not try to do something?' " Soon after, Melissa founded Kids for a Clean Environment (Kids FACE), a club that started locally but now, ten years later, has more than 300,000 members worldwide involved in planting trees, recycling, and writing letters about environmental issues. "We supported Melissa's ideas and encouraged her regardless of whether or not she was able to accomplish each goal," says Poe.

Ultimately, one of the many ways that our children make our lives more fulfilling is to give us more of a stake in the future. With consumer culture at an all-time high, we need to make our own beliefs clear enough to offer our kids a compelling alternative. It's up to us to pass on values of love, respect, tolerance, equality -- and a view of the world based on relationships with people and nature, not just on accumulating possessions. You can share your passion for the wilderness, for example, by taking your children hiking to beautiful places that are worth fighting to save. However overextended we may feel, taking the time and effort to be socially active helps us and our children find deeper meaning and purpose. And it lets us pass on a better world to all of our children.

Tragically, the shooting at Littleton's Columbine High School has made many adults and kids feel powerless in the face of unpredictable violence. But even children can take concrete steps to help bring about change and regain their sense of hope. Fights don't break out as frequently as they used to at P.S. 230, in Brooklyn, New York, for example, thanks to 11-year-old Masiel Richardson and 60 other students who wear blue "Mediator" T-shirts. Each of the mediators took a two-day dispute-resolution workshop sponsored by the program, Children's Creative Response to Conflict. If two kids start yelling or scuffling in the cafeteria or schoolyard, "we take them to a quiet place, let them cool off, and then we talk it out until they both feel better," says Masiel. "We're all learning to compromise and find win-win solutions to our problems."

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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the July 1999 issue of Parents magazine.