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It’s that time of year when our minds turn to Thanksgiving, holiday parties and, for our little ones, the prospect of receiving gifts. While it’s normal for kids to anticipate getting the latest toy, electronic device or sneakers, this can also be a great time to teach children about the joys of giving back.
Michele Borba, Ed.D, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All- About-Me World, says that volunteering with your kids should be something you should strive to do with your child throughout the year, not just during the holidays. “Giving actually helps a child be happy more than getting,” Borba says. “It’s a wonderful way to reduce stress. When a child sees someone suffering he becomes more empathetic. And it’s a confidence builder—he realizes, ‘I can do something.’”
A LASTING IMPACT
If you haven’t volunteered lately because your home and work lives are already full, you're not alone. But making the time to bring your child along to a food drive, walk-a-thon or other volunteer activity can actually be fun, and the benefits your whole family will reap are invaluable.
For one, it instills empathy. Kids can’t truly appreciate all they have if they aren’t aware that many others have a lot less. Seeing how others live can be eye-opening for kids in a good way, and may even lead to a lifelong pursuit. “We overlook the fact that the kind of project you choose can become long-term for the child,” says Borba. “Many people have told me they became a doctor or teacher because of the experiences their parents gave them. Giving back
instills passion and purpose, and it’ll help you raise a better-behaved kid if you do it more than once.”
It builds confidence. When your child rolls up her sleeves to serve a Thanksgiving meal or plant a tree, she can see that her actions can have a direct impact on someone else’s life.
It fosters relationships. When you give back together, you’ll be broadening your circle. Kids can form meaningful friendships with senior citizens they visit, or neighbors they otherwise might not have ever met.
It shows them what you value. Again, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the special things that come with the holidays, but when you take your child to do good work, you’re showing her that helping others and building a sense of community is important to you.
Nicole Garcia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who works with both children and adults in Montclair, says that if your child sees you volunteering your time, he or she will be more likely to do it, too. “Even if the adult is volunteering on her own, modeling that behavior is a nice way to naturally demonstrate your values to your child. ‘This is something we do because we care about people.’”
SCREEN-FREE BONDING TIME
When was the last time you and your child worked together on something without interruption? The time you spend working in an animal shelter or handing out supplies is time spent doing something active together.
“When we work together and volunteer, it teaches our children to be other-centered instead of self-centered,” says Stacy Haynes, Ed.D, CEO of Little Hands Family Services in Turnersville. “My children love to help others because they have an example of a parent that loves to help others, [too].” And while not every child is ready to don a pair of work boots and start building a house, there are significant things all kids can do. Even the youngest ones can color a picture to cheer up a house-bound senior or donate a toy to help less fortunate kids.
“I’m the mother of a 2-year-old boy, so it’s not exactly easy finding things suitable for him to do when it comes to volunteering,” says Terri Huggins of Plainsboro. “However, I try to instill the idea of ‘doing good’ whenever I can. Together, my son and I have colored pictures for colorasmile.org. It’s an organization that sends colored pictures to those who are in need of a smile, such as those in the service and senior citizens in nursing homes.”
Borba agrees that there are simple ways for all families to make a difference. “Start in your own community,” says Borba. “The park that’s dirty around the corner? Let’s go pick up trash and plant flowers. Parents don’t have to come up with lofty ideas that’ll change the world. Do things together and watch your child’s response. Soon, he’ll be the one making the suggestions!"
With your endless to-do list, volunteer work may be an afterthought, but here’s yet another reason to make the time to give back. In our always-plugged-in, selfie-taking digital world, it may be more important than ever to show kids why looking outside our own lives is important. So get together with your kids, look up from your devices (you too, parents!), engage with the world around you and make a difference.
WHERE TO HELP
Pack cold weather kits for this community-based organization.
Sort and pack groceries for food drives around the state.
Children can fill lunch bags for distribution at the soup kitchen.
Help serve breakfast and lunch in the community kitchen.
Kids can shop for a gift for a child in need.
Teens can collect and distribute feminine hygiene products.
Assist families in shelters that are transitioning to permanent homes in NJ.
Collect dry and canned goods for this organization’s food bank.
Kids can get in on annual community initiatives like a coat drive.
Go green by planting trees, pruning and weeding in NJ communities.
Get involved with this live music series that helps fight hunger.
Give back to a family in need during the holidays.
Kids can donate plastic toys that are still in good condition.
Help shelter pets, including some that were rescued from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma.
Ronnie Koenig is a freelance writer living in Princeton with her husband and twins. Her first romance novel will be published by Harlequin next spring. Follow her on Instagram @theronniekoenig.