Much has been written about the over-scheduled child. Family calendars are packed with so many extra-curricular and enrichment activities, it’s a wonder that children have time to eat, sleep and finish homework. And while kids are so busy, they (and we) are increasingly disconnected from each other as we are drawn to devices and screens.
Parents are searching for ways to reconnect, to keep kids grounded and grateful and to fight against the rising tide of negativity and cynicism. I believe that family service is the answer—a proven way to achieve these goals for your own family while improving the lives of others in your community.
Volunteering together helps parents raise compassionate, empathetic kids with the added bonus of creating warm family memories. But how can you find the time, in the midst of all the other commitments crowding a busy family’s schedule?
There’s no question that there are many benefits to volunteering with kids and that it is worth the time and effort it often takes to do so. Inevitably, though, saying “yes” to service means saying “no” to something else. It will require a little bit of planning, some creativity, an open mind and most importantly, a sense of purpose.
Prioritizing service demonstrates to your children that helping others is important—just as important as soccer, piano lessons or any of the other commitments that fill the calendar. As the author Laura Vanderkam wrote in her essay, Are you as busy as you think?: “Instead of saying ‘I don’t have time’, try saying ‘It’s not a priority for me’ and see how that feels.”
1. Start early to create life-long habits of kindness.
Even young children can engage in service projects at home, or join older siblings and parents on special outings, like delivering groceries to the food pantry or cleaning up a local park. If you start while children are young and incorporate service into daily routines, giving back will become a habit, woven into the fabric of your family life.
2. Let the school calendar, holidays and seasons help you create new family traditions around service.
At the end of each month, take a few moments to identify upcoming holidays, days off from school and family milestone celebrations when you might volunteer together. At the change of season, work with kids to sort through gently used, outgrown clothing and outerwear for donation to children in need.
At the end of summer, host a lemonade stand and donate proceeds to childhood cancer research, or fill backpacks with essential supplies for kids in under-resourced schools. In the fall, identify a soup kitchen that can use your support at Thanksgiving.
As the winter “giving” holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah fill the calendar with festivities, find an opportunity to make wishes come true for children in need through toy drives or “adopt-a-family” programs. The important thing is to find a project that resonates with your family and be sure to include the activity in your calendar each year.
3. Incorporate service into things you are already doing.
If your child is hosting a playdate with a few friends, add a kindness activity to the afternoon of fun. Kids can bake cookies and create cheerful cards to deliver to your local fire station, police precinct or nursing home.
When planning your child’s birthday party or other milestone event, ask them to select a charity they’d like to support with their celebration and incorporate a donation drive or related hands-on service project, or ask for donations in lieu of gifts.
4. Try “kitchen table kindness” activities at home.
You don’t need much to engage kids in kindness activities. With some crayons and a piece of construction paper, a child can write a letter or draw a picture for a lonely senior, a member of our active duty military or a hospitalized child.
5. Practice random acts of kindness as you move through your day.
Every day presents countless opportunities to practice kindness with kids. As you head to the market, offer to pick up groceries for a homebound neighbor. Bring a hot cup of coffee to the crossing guard on a cold day (or a cold drink during a heat wave). Pick up trash as you walk around your neighborhood. Hold the door and smile at the next person coming through the entrance. Allow your kids to leave a few coins in the tip jar at the coffee shop.
Your one small, simple act might have a ripple effect in changing a person’s day and the gratitude your child receives will make them feel great, too.
Finding time for family service allows you to live your values while spreading compassion and joy in a world that is in desperate need of both. Children feel pride in serving and reap the benefits of flexing their empathy “muscles.” There is no magic formula—parents simply need to keep an open heart, an observant eye and a positive intention.
Every day and in every busy schedule, there’s always time to do good.