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You’ve probably heard the famous words of St. Francis of Assisi, “For it is in the giving that we receive.” But how do we translate that to real life for our children? 

When we encourage siblings to share with one another, they often do so begrudgingly. When we offer opportunities like a school supply drive or holiday toy donation to our family members, it is usually Mom or Dad footing the bill for the donated items. If we really want our family to reap the rewards of service, we are going to have to put on our work gloves and lead by example.

There is an abundant amount of scientific evidence for the benefits of altruism. There are many examples of how focusing on others not only feels good, but does us good. Of course we all want to feel happier, less depressed, and better able to regulate our own emotions. One way to grow in these areas, is by serving others.  

Depending on the age of your children, there are so many great opportunities to lend a hand. Some investigating and a few phone calls will land you the volunteer opportunity of your dreams, and bond your family in a unique way. 

When considering what type of volunteer work you wish to engage in, you could ask your family members “If you could change one thing in our community, what would it be?” or “What breaks your heart?” Family dinner discussions around these topics will start to peel back the layers of your family onion, where your hearts meet and will have a chance to make a difference. 

Some of the possibilities to serve with your children include:

Chances to do good are all around you. Pick what best suits your family and find a way to give back. You might find that you are the one who reaps some of the rewards. 

Just after my daughter’s third birthday, I met an elderly woman named Sarah and her grown son Scottie. Scottie was confined to a wheelchair. He had lost both of his legs due to spina bifida. I discovered that Scottie and Sarah had numerous emotional and financial needs so I rallied several friends through my church to help serve them.

One day I invited my daughter to join me in taking dinner to Scottie. “Mommy, why doesn’t Scottie have any feet? How does Scottie play soccer? Why is he in a wheelchair?” I knew her inquisitive mind would ask questions about Scottie – and I was ready to give her the answers. At first she was intimidated by Scottie’s wheelchair and the fact that he looked different than everybody else. But after 3-4 visits to their home, my daughter and Scottie were two peas in a pod. My daughter started drawing pictures “just for Scottie”, asked to call him to say goodnight, and she even invited him to her birthday party.

On Christmas Eve of 2009, Scottie was admitted to ICU for pneumonia. My daughter overheard me on the phone with my church asking to help raise money for his medical bills. My daughter came into my room with several pieces of paper wrapped like presents with “SARAH” scribbled on the front. “What’s this, honey?” I asked. “Since Sarah and Scottie need money, I took all of the money from my piggy bank to give them. It’s in here. Can we take it to the hospital and give it to them?” Conley asked.

The most effective way for a child to learn compassion is for them to follow their parent’s lead. If mom reaches out to a person in need, the children will follow suit. If dad is involved in regular charity events, the kids will too.

Bring your kids along for the ride. Take them to the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters and get them involved in fund-raisers. How do you expect your children to be compassionate if you are not compassionate, giving and non-judgmental yourself? A compassionate child starts with a compassionate parent.

Dr. Janice Cohn, author of “Raising Compassionate Children In a Violent World”, spent years researching kids who were involved in helping people in need and the parents of these children.  She said there was one clear common denominator in every case: “Each child had parents or other crucial role models who either taught them the importance of compassion and courage by example or unequivocally supported the children’s instincts to respond to people who needed help” Dr. Cohn noted.

Dr. Cohn also says, “When people develop into compassionate, caring human beings, it not only benefits society but also promotes personal happiness and higher self-esteem as well.”

Children are incredibly bright creatures. It’s human nature for parents to avoid wanting their children to spend time with a person in need in fear that they might ask an “embarrassing” question. But we need to realize that those questions kids ask are awesome opportunities for parents to teach their children that there are a zillion people in the world who talk, walk and look different than us. And they are our friends.

Who are three people or organizations in your town who need your help? Make a plan to take your family (kids included) to serve these people in a special way. You might have one of the most special family outings your have ever had in your entire life!