Raising Socially Aware
Through Community Involvement
teaching young children compassion and kindness
By Elissa Peterson
Community involvement. It’s something we all
strive for. It’s written on our hearts. Help people who need to be helped is
the battle cry of all responsible citizens. As parents it’s our
responsibility to instill that value in our children. But how? And when?
Social injustice is a planet-wide problem, but I can’t take my five-year-old
to war-torn Iraq. I’m not even sure I’m thrilled about taking her downtown
to a soup kitchen.
Like most parents, I struggle with how to teach
my children compassion. I want to get them involved with projects that
matter, but they’re only five and seven. It’s one thing to write a check and
have them drive downtown with me to the charity we’re supporting. But I
don’t really think that’s the mark I want to hit. To me, teaching compassion
is more than writing a check and making your kid go with you to deliver it.
In order to teach my kids compassion, I want to dig in and get my hands
dirty for a good cause. And I want my kids to get their hands dirty too.
|"In order to teach my kids
compassion, I want to dig in and get my hands dirty for a good
cause. And I want my kids to get their hands dirty too."
Start at home
Very young children are capable of showing
compassion. As toddlers and preschoolers my daughters, were both fascinated
by things that needed to be cared for. The dog needs to be fed, the baby
needs a blanket. They can be aware of the needs around them, and start
meeting those needs as they are developmentally ready. Encourage your tot to
recognize the needs of others and to do what she can to meet those needs.
Teach her to look for others she can help, and notice when she does.
As your child grows and becomes more aware of
life outside the home, it’s time to get him out the door and started on
community projects. Scour community involvement websites and newspapers to
find local projects that kids can participate in. While searching, be sure
to keep your little one’s interests, abilities, and safety in mind. You
might have a heart for the hungry and homeless in your community, but is a
homeless shelter the best place for a five-year-old?
Food and clothing
A lot of times, the best way for your youngster
to help out is to go shopping. It seems like someone in the neighborhood is
always in need of clothing, nonperishable food, or toys. Contributing to a
clothing drive is a safe and practical way to help your child realize that
there are people out there in need. Find a group that is collecting
something specific and take your child to pick out something to donate.
Encourage her to pick out something that they would like to receive.
Contribute to your local food bank
We are gardeners in our house. We love the
science of planting things, and watching them grow. Frankly, the children
are a little more interested in the science of growing vegetables than they
are in eating them! At five and seven, they loved watering and caring for
their little garden, and were rather jubilant each time a new fruit
appeared. Knowing in advance that my children were such avid gardeners, we
planted a ton of stuff (just to make sure our harvest wasn’t disappointing).
It soon became apparent that we were going to have way more vegetables than
we were going to eat. What a perfect opportunity to teach my kids how to use
their talents to care for their community!
Before harvest time, I contacted our local food
bank to see what they wanted. When I knew their donation standards, I
started promoting the idea to the kids, who were predictably thrilled that I
wasn’t going to make them eat all those veggies. When harvest time came, the
children helped with the whole process: harvesting, cleaning, and preparing
the veggies to go on their way. As a family, we took the veggies to the food
bank, which is literally right around the corner from our house. I don’t
think we could have picked a more appropriate project; the kids loved every
moment of their involvement. And the food bank was beyond thrilled to
receive fresh, locally grown produce.
your child to be compassionate and socially aware is more than
picking a charity and throwing money at it."
Be sure to follow up
Remember that this activity is not about giving
yourself a pat on the back. It’s about teaching your child to be socially
aware. Don’t just make your contribution and go on with life. If your
donation is leaving the community, take the time to find out where it is
going and share that with your child. It might be worth taking a moment
together to pull out a map to pinpoint where your donation is going and why
it’s going there.
Perhaps there are some developmentally
appropriate resources (such as books or videos) online or at your local
library that may be worth searching for.
Teaching your child to be compassionate and
socially aware is more than picking a charity and throwing money at it. It’s
finding a cause that you believe it, and letting your child know that this
cause is worth your time and energy. As soon as children are developmentally
able to be aware of others and their needs, get them started on something
that matters. It’s never too soon to help your children get involved in
their community and the world.
Elissa Peterson is a busy mama who is passionate about all