How to raise kids who give back

It’s National Volunteer Week! And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of giving back. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and giving back.

1. Lead by example: “Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Director, Employee and Volunteer Engagement at United Way. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” This is something you can do from a young age by both bringing your kids along when you volunteer and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. Bean first started volunteering with her kids when they were six years old. She says this is a good age to get children excited about helping others as they start to explore their own independence. With her little ones, she chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Build on their interests: “Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and helping to give some pets a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, helping a child overseas. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends. When they get a bit older, you can also sign them up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Cubs. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, it’s a great time to get them involved. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you with something connected to that like making the weekly team snack, explains Bean.

3. Say ‘thank you’: One way to keep kids in the giving spirit is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having the event organizer thank them, will help them feel they’re now part of a wider community.

4. Be a gardener: Part of the process of raising kids who give back is planting seeds that help them see the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. This can start at any age. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” she says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding your kids to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. “For example, our son gets $2 pocket money and puts aside $1 each week for ‘penguins and polar bears,’ his choice.”

5. Encourage empathy: Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe, who is also a writer, and the author of the children’s book My New Best Friend, which teaches kids about being a friend to themselves. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.” One way to help to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids.

Looking for an easy way to get your child volunteering? Have your mini philanthropist (aged 10+) tag along with you at this year’s Scotiabank Rat Race! Stay tuned for volunteer opportunities—sign-up begins May 3.