Little Hearts, Big Impact: Raising Kids Who Care

My 6-year-old writing a note inside a book to donate to The Nobelity Project’s 1000 Books for Hope project. The dollar was to be placed inside to help offset shipping costs.

That moment. It might happen when your child first goes to check on a crying friend…unprompted. When he notices the mother begging next to the road, and asks how he can help. When she decides, of her own accord, to donate the money in her piggy bank to the animal shelter.

In that moment, the tantrums are forgotten. The spilled milk at lunch is a distant memory. The dirt tracked in on the carpet is suddenly put into perspective.

What was one small step for your child becomes a large leap in raising a child who cares. But what if you aren’t there yet? What if the moment snuck up on you, and you want to keep up the momentum? What if you are simply looking for ways to use service to connect with your family in a more meaningful way?

Here in Austin, we are lucky to have Little Helping Hands, which is a local resource for parents, caregivers, businesses and groups looking for meaningful family volunteer opportunities suitable for young children. The nonprofit has an online calendar with a variety of activities, from making dinner for families staying at the Ronald McDonald house to breaking down computers at Goodwill to preparing canned food for the Hope Food Pantry. The activities are designed with kids in mind — from the duration of the activities to the reflection questions. It’s no surprise that Austin families have flocked to sign up for these opportunities, so much so that to get a coveted spot, parents often have to register as soon as they receive the email announcing the next month’s events are live.

When I first heard about Little Helping Hands, I wanted to get involved. As someone who participated in community service since I was barely older than my son, it’s important to me to instill an understanding in him of the role he can play in making his community and world a better place.

Through Little Helping Hands, I learned about another organization, Doing Good Together, based in Minnesota, as well as a collaborative project between the two organizations and The Volunteer Family called Big Hearted Families. Big Hearted Families is a new online resource with project ideas and printable activities to practice kindness, compassion and acts of service with your family. When Marissa Vogel at Little Helping Hands told me that the collaborators were looking for families to participate in a pilot project to test out activities on Big Hearted Families weekly and provide feedback, I signed up.

I had a chance to talk to Jenny Friedman, who is overseeing Big Hearted Families, about the initiative and the importance of service for both parents and children. Jenny pointed out that although here in Austin, we are lucky enough to have a resource like Little Helping Hands, in most places, opportunities to teach young children about service to others and giving back are few and far between — if they even exist at all. Many families are desperately looking for an antidote to materialism in our society and looking to pass along the importance of being generous and compassionate. Doing the legwork to sign kids up to volunteer at a soup kitchen might seem like an insurmountable task, whereas having your child make a greeting card for a sick child while you work on dinner is an easy way to start a dialogue about helping others.

So, in collaboration with the other organizations, Jenny set out to to create a comprehensive online resource for families with children ages 3-12 years old. The goal of Big Hearted Families is to make it easy for families to weave a focus on kindness, service to others and good citizenship into their everyday lives. “We really wanted to make it simple and accessible for even the busiest families,” explained Jenny. Although the website has findings on the benefits of family volunteerism and book and website recommendations, the “heart” (pun intended) of the site is a catalog of activities you can do with your children, along with reflection questions. Some of the projects take as little as 10 minutes to complete.

One example of a project is Pithy Placemats. Once you print out the placemat template, you can use the questions on the placemat to start conversations at the dinner table about who might have helped your child that day and who he or she might have helped. In having this discussion, you can point out to your children that everyone needs help sometimes and that the world is a better place when we can help each other out. Children who are having these conversations with their families, Jenny asserts, are more likely to become adults who are engaged in their communities.

What if you think there is just not one moment to spare in your week? Big Hearted Families has you covered with their suggestions for quick acts of kindness and printable inspirations you can put on the fridge to spark conversation. Jenny suggested that any amount of time spent doing good for others is a way to bring families closer. By making the time to give back, she pointed out, you are spending quality time with your children that is meaningful. Jenny stressed that a lot of the impact comes from the discussions you have with your children during or after the activity. Even cooking a meal for a sick neighbor can provide you with a chance to talk about how we all can help each other.

My son’s thank you note for a soldier.

Jenny has heard heartwarming stories about a host of benefits to families who volunteer. Children become more grateful, stereotypes are broken down, family members become closer and more of a team, parents have more thoughtful discussions with children and kids see the important role service plays for their families.

Anyone can access the projects on Big Hearted Families and you can still sign up to be a pilot family by contacting Jenny.

In full disclosure, I signed up to be a part of the pilot project with some hesitation. Although we had done a handful of Little Helpings Hands activities a year, could we commit to doing good together each week? Since my son is not me, and not as enthusiastic about volunteering (and admittedly, sometimes not enthusiastic at all), would it be a mistake to force him to volunteer? Would my noble idea backfire and would my son equate service with coercion? I decided my drive for our family to do good outweighed my fears about the fallout. I signed us up.

So far, we have written letters to soldiers, made birdseed cookies, fed hungry minds through the Nobelity Project’s 1000 Books for Hope program, left encouraging notes in library books and made a microloan through Kiva. Does my son look forward to Thursdays, when I try to schedule our activity? Unfortunately, no. Does he sometimes groan when I cheerfully announce that it’s time to stop playing so we can do our service project? Yes. Do I realize this is a work in progress? Most of the time.

Because my child is not me and because his empathy muscles are still growing, those times when I see him reach out to others are that much more meaningful. I cheer him on when he makes a drawing for his Grandma. My heart swells when I watch how tenderly he cares for his pets. I’m excited about being a Big Hearted Family and watching my son’s heart grow as he experiences the power of kindness and the feeling that can only come from making a difference.

Do you seek out volunteer opportunities for your family? What service projects have resonated with your children? Are you planning to incorporate giving into your family’s holiday traditions this year? Do you any any ideas to share to encourage kids who are still developing their empathy muscles?

A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 6-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.