Is this really worth it? I wondered, as I directed my girls—Drew, 3, and Blair, 5—to carry the unwrapped present we were donating to a needy child their preschool had chosen to help last December. Even though I had explained the situation to them a bunch of times ("This family doesn't have a lot of money, so we're giving them a gift for their little girl, because helping people is a good thing to do"), they still didn't seem to get why they couldn't keep the toy. That led to a lot of whining and more than a few tears. Because the toy was cool. It was Christmastime. And they couldn't understand how Santa could even think of skipping over this family's house.
Clearly it would have been easier to avoid the whole scene and slide the gift under the school's tree after the kids were in their classroom. Either way, the girl would have a present to open, and we would cross "good deed" off our holiday to-do list. Done and done.
Then the Good Parent on my right shoulder began whispering in my ear: "This is a teaching moment. If your kids put the gift under the tree themselves, they will start to see what a difference they can make in this world!"
But would this experience really turn them into the compassionate, community-serving, world-doesn't-revolve-around-me women I wanted them to grow up to be? Ellen Sabin, author of The Giving Book, convinced me that it just might. "Once children are exposed to helping other people, it starts to become a habit," she says.
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.
There's a big bonus to helping others: While it's clearly good for the person being helped, it's also beneficial to the helper. Kids who volunteer do better in school and are less likely to try drugs, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that promotes acts of citizenship and responsibility. The same organization found that people who regularly lend a hand tend to be healthier and that these wellness benefits increase if they start charitable work earlier in their life. Research also demonstrates that doing volunteer work that involves personal contact makes people feel better: There's a literal endorphin rush for the giver, the give, and anyone watching. Plus, it builds confidence and self-worth in the right way, by showing kids that their actions matter.
Even if your motives for getting your kids involved are, well, selfish, it's all good. "They still get the experience of helping other human beings," says Allan Luks, author of The Healing Power of Doing Good. Besides, not all children are good at the other things that can build self-esteem, like getting good grades or being a gifted athlete. But everyone can volunteer.
The "everyone" part is key. "Kids will not do it on their own," Luks says. "Parents have to give them a push." The easiest way to do that is to join a cause as a family. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that children with at least one parent who volunteers are almost three times as likely to participate in a do-good activity as those whose families don't get involved.
That doesn't mean you need to schedule weekly visits to a nursing home or take a volunteer service vacation to Ghana (unless you want to, of course). Building a culture of giving is simpler than that—praising kids when they share nicely with their siblings, encouraging them to make birthday cards for their friends, picking up trash as a family when you're at the park or playground, visiting an animal shelter to give the ownerless cats and dogs some hands-on love. "Just smiling at someone is a charitable act," says Sabin. "If we offer good experiences, if we say to kids, 'How cool is it that you can do this,' it becomes addictive."
She's right. I saw it myself, right there in front of the tree at preschool, after my girls decided—finally—to let go of the toy. Drew got down on her knees and pushed the present under the tree, then stood up and turned toward me. There was a huge, beaming smile on her face that reminded me of the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes. "I want to put some more presents under the tree!" she said.
"Yeah, Mommy," her older sister, Blair, piped in. "We need to help other people a lot more." So to answer my own question: Yes, in the end, it really was worth it.
Coming up with appropriate charities for your child can be challenging. Need inspiration? GenerationOn (generationon.org) lists myriad project ideas, from collecting mittens for the homeless to making valentines for hospital patients. You can also search for projects related to her interest, or check out the ideas below.
If your child wants to help: