Doing good for others can start as early as two years as a child can see a picture of another child without a smile and hear, “This little girl is sad because she doesn’t have any food. We are going to give her some of our food to make her tummy feel full and happy.” This is just one example of how, by using expressive and developmentally appropriate language, through stories, books, or other media, your child can begin to understand experiences others might be having that goes beyond their daily lives. Naming the emotions that others might be feeling in these unique new situations allows your child to develop a story in their minds about how others live, what they might feel and how to help them to feel better.
These conversations, story times, and shared experiences help to lay the groundwork for a true volunteer experience. A child knows when you are interested, excited, and emotionally moved by an experience and your decision to allocate your time to sharing with others is communicated to your children of all ages in a very deep way. Even the youngest child will perceive the feelings of her parent or sibling as they discuss the scenarios of other lives, and express their own feelings of how it might feel to be in someone else’s shoes.
When you do bring a child or youth to a volunteer activity, be sure to discuss it before, read stories, books, news articles, and allow your child to ask questions and have discussions about the new information they will be receiving by being in a new environment. Start where they are in their understanding and take these conversations at the child’s pace.
Finally, in order to help your child to grasp the importance of giving back, try and ensure that volunteering is something your family does throughout the year rather than as a one-time event. Regular volunteering creates the habit of caring and shows that you and your family are interested in others on a regular basis. Volunteering only at holidays sends a message that this is the only time others need our help and, although better than nothing, does not build empathy and compassion into the child’s framework of life. Doing small things all year not only helps create this family paradigm for your children, but also is truly more helpful to others in need, as non-holiday times are often when they need help the most.