It’s the classic image of celebrities helping the disadvantaged around the holidays – serving meals to the homeless. Spend twenty minutes spooning mashed potatoes in a cute apron on Skid Row, just long enough to get that photo, and they get to pat themselves on the back all year long.
Just as celebrities go back to their lives, so too do the residents of Skid Row go back to their lives. A gesture like this is just that – a gesture. Let’s be real, it’s far more about the ego of the reality star holding the spoon than it is about the reality of life for the people with the empty plates. But the flip side is, why would you discourage any kind of volunteerism? Isn’t anything people can do a good thing, a step in the right direction? What if that celebrity is inspiring someone else to volunteer?
I’m not here to judge either way. One big rainstorm helps a lot, but it will only take sustained regular precipitation above normal levels to make the drought go away. Similarly, one afternoon of volunteering helps a lot, but it will take higher than average participation levels to make significant improvements in someone’s life that needs it.
One great takeaway is to use holiday volunteerism as a gateway to a lifetime of giving. Compassion is something that happens all year long, and if you want to instill compassion as a core value for your children, then we need to foster it all year long.
The best way to do this is to get your kids involved in volunteer work that’s long term. You can certainly get started during the holidays, when it’s at the front of your mind and when you’re caught up in that holiday spirit.
For most of us, our time is more valuable than our money. It’s a bigger gift for you to give three hours than to give thirty dollars. And when it comes to creating a sense of shared struggle with individuals who need help and creating an understanding of their hardships within yourself and your children, offering time will have more of an impact. There’s an emotional connection with people in that time and place that embeds itself in your mind, and stays with you. And it stays with them too.
We all live busy lives. Who has time to volunteer too? Isn’t this just one more thing on my to do list? On my kid’s to do list? Great, now I have guilt.
Think of it this way – why do you do all of the other things on your list? What’s driving you? What’s driving your kids? It’s great to be ambitious and to teach your children that drive for success. In fact it’s essential. But it’s also essential to temper that ambition with compassion; think of it as a way of creating balance. You’re nourishing your child’s emotional health by creating opportunities to develop empathy and purpose.
Our minds create categories of tasks and marks them as essential or not essential. It’s how we decide what we can first take off of our plate or push to another day (hello, laundry).
|| Going to a movie
|| Sleeping in
Things in that right hand category get knocked off in service of the things on the left. That’s great, and completely an appropriate tool for managing life. All you have to do to help create a compassionate child is to move volunteering over to the left. When you prioritize volunteering, your children will grow up prioritizing it as well.
Our schools have tried to institutionalize this process by making it required. However, surveys continually show that kids and teens volunteer because they want to, not because they have to. Partly because it’s social, partly because it’s the best way to get involved with causes they care about.
Here are a few ideas of places to find long term volunteer opportunities. A few hours a month, that’s all you need. A little is far better than none. And what you’ll find is that both you and your children will want to do more once you get started!
Find somewhere that you enjoy going and that gets your kids excited. You don’t need to join a program, just find a place that piques your interest and ask to help out. And you don’t have to be feeding the hungry directly to be helpful. Sometimes filing, answering phones or sorting donations is a poignant need that charities have. Or, maybe you have a special skill like accounting, web design, or fundraising. Be creative!
- Nursing homes
- Animal shelters
- Social activist groups
- Food banks
- Environmental organizations
- After school programs
- Community theaters
- Family crisis centers
- Non-profit thrift stores