5 ways to raise good humans

An earlier version of this story appeared on imagineacity.ca in April 2017 and has been updated and edited here.

This time of year is all about giving back—to friends, family and community. And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of doing good. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and being a good human.

1. Show them the way

“Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Senior Director, Culture and Leadership at Learn2. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” You can start doing this when your kids are young—Bean started volunteering with her little ones when they were six—by bringing them along 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. With her kids, Bean 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. Get them inspired

“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 giving some furry friends a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, finding a way to help kids their age. “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 kids up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Scouts. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, use that as an opening to get them to think about giving back. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you do something community-minded that’s connected to the activity, such as making the weekly team snack. That way, you’ll connect good-human behaviour to something they love.

You can also encourage them to come up with their own ideas for community initiatives or ways to give back. Who knows, you might have a social innovator on your hands.

3. Make them feel appreciated

One way to help kids blossom into good humans 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 an organizer thank them, will make them feel that they’re now part of a wider community, encouraging them to keep giving back.

4. Broaden their minds

Part of the process of raising kids who give back is helping them learn about the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. 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,” Marlowe says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding them to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. This can help them understand not only that people in their community are in need, but also that there is something they can do to help.

5. Foster empathy

Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe. “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 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 present.

This is also another area where you can model the behaviour you want to see. Remember, kids are like sponges, so when you show kindness and empathy to others, your children will pick up on it.

Want to learn more about how we can help kids become good humans?

10 unexpected ways to volunteer this winter

Camara Chambers has been giving back since she was 16, when she volunteered in a local charity shop in the United Kingdom. “I realized then that volunteering isn’t just a chance to make a difference; it also gives you skills and learning opportunities you might not find anywhere else,” says Chambers, who is Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, a United Way–supported agency. And it’s a fantastic thing for families to do together, she adds, especially once the holidays are over, since the need is greater at other times of the year. Here are 10 ways you and your family can change someone’s life for the better.

1. Supporting seniors: Sometimes families have a harder time finding volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for younger children. Chambers recommends looking into your local Meals on Wheels  or Friendly Visiting services. “Elderly people, especially those living in long-term retirement homes, can feel especially isolated, and spending time with them is a lovely opportunity for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s a nice way for children to meet the people they’re helping.” You can connect directly with long-term care homes in your neighbourhood by checking out the volunteer pages on their websites, or by going to local community sites, such as York Region’s CIVICYork page. Search for “long-term care facility volunteer positions” to learn about opportunities.

2. Kids helping kids: A great way to get teens involved—and give high-school students their requisite hours of volunteer service—is to encourage them to give after-school tutoring a try.

3. Call a shelter: Tight on time but driven to do something? Contact your local shelter and ask them what they need. “In the colder months, shelters are often desperate for socks, warm coats and blankets,” says Chambers. Personal-hygiene kits with toothbrushes and shampoo are almost always in demand, too. You can also visit Warmest Wishes to give the gift of warmth to someone in need.

4. Share a meal: If you enjoy entertaining, why not invite a family that’s new to Canada over for a holiday feast? You can do it independently or through an organization like Share Thanksgiving, which pairs newcomers with Canadian hosts to share a festive evening with new friends and family.

5. Everyone loves books: Free libraries continue to crop up all over the city, and they’re great places to donate your used books. “It’s such a wonderful way to make books available to people who may not have access to them otherwise,” says Chambers.

6. Be their guest: Some of the city’s Syrian refugee women have started up a grassroots “newcomer kitchen” to share their passion for cooking Syrian cuisine with Canadians. “It’s an opportunity to meet some of the country’s newest citizens and to experience their food and culture,” says Chambers. Even Justin Trudeau has dropped by for a newcomer brunch.

7. Build a gingerbread house: Every winter, Habitat for Humanity GTA hosts a gingerbread house-building workshop for kids. Participants pay $50 for a kit, which comes complete with assembled or unassembled house (depending on how ambitious you feel!), icing and plenty of candy. Proceeds fund the organization’s building projects.

8. Pass on your points: Did you know you can donate your Airmiles points to charity? Most people don’t, Chambers says, but it’s a quick and easy way to give back.

9. Out of the Cold: Every winter, many of the city’s churches open their doors to the homeless, offering some respite from the bitter temperatures outside. And there are lots of ways you can help, from simply being on hand to greet people and answer questions to handing out hot drinks. Log on to the Out of the Cold website to find a program near you.

10. Hit the ice: Evergreen Brick Works is a volunteer mecca year-round, but in the winter the organization needs extra help once its skating rink is up and running. You can pitch in lots of ways, from helping out in the skate shop to being a rink ambassador.

If you’d like to find more ways to volunteer with your kids, check out Volunteer Toronto’s site; their Suitable for Families (with Kids under 14) page is routinely updated with non-profit organizations that could use your help. You can also find additional winter volunteer opportunities on the site’s Holiday volunteering page.