“Our greatness has always come from people who expect nothing and take nothing for granted—folks who work hard for what they have, then reach back and help others after them.” —Michelle Obama
Raising a compassionate and helpful child is not so easy these days. The natural self-centeredness of a child’s early years combined with a culture that highlights individual achievement over collective progress means that we will have some extra work to do as parents.
As you would guess, a child’s ability to care about and help others needs to be nurtured in their early years. In fact, it is most sustainable when “helping” becomes part of family life.
The wonderful thing about cultivating helpfulness is not only is it action-oriented, but it builds broader capabilities like compassion, kindness, and service to others. Children with a helping mindset become great friends, teammates, and co-workers. Families with helping habits strengthen the fabric that holds them together while infusing family life with new levels of meaning. The bottom line is that nothing connects us to each other like helping.
Unfortunately, these capabilities can get lost in our go-go, time-deficient worlds. Here are the five best strategies for developing helpfulness in your child and family life:
1. Model It: Leverage the fact that our young kids want to be like us. If they see us helping a neighbor with their groceries, they will want to help too! When they see us volunteering time at their school or making time for those in need, they will naturally cultivate the same values. Smaller acts of helpfulness are a great way to start because they can be copied right away. When you share your home-grown tomatoes, let your child deliver them to your neighbor. The simple act will create powerful feelings that they will want to replicate over and over.
2. Talk About It: The dinner table is often a great place to get the discussion going. Share an inspiring story about how a friend routinely takes in stray animals and works to get them placed with great families. Talk about how your family can help out. Also, when kids hit around age four it is a great time to talk about the environment and how we can all help. Take the family recycling program to the next level by reducing waste and maybe starting a compost pile. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is a fun read and has a friendly “go green” message for kids.
3. Do It Together: An easy strategy is to include your little ones in things you are already doing. When you make a meal, give them a role. When you drop off clothes to charity, let them help too. Even in your daily regimen, try to find a task for them (time to bring your dirty clothes down!). The key is to slow down enough (and be patient enough) to make them a part of the things they see us doing. Be sure to thank them for helping out, but often the simple act of being included will provide its own reward.
4. Let Them Do It: It is not surprising that young children often feel more like passengers than crew members in family life. For their early years, we have had to constantly do things for them, but we need to start including their little helping hands as they approach pre-school. Give them their own set of chores that they can feel responsible for. Make it a checklist on the refrigerator that becomes a visible reminder of much they are helping. Finally, balance the need to do’s (making their bed) with the want to do’s (feeding the family dog).
5. Make It Rich in Rituals: Make helping feel like a rich family tradition with lots of meaningful rituals to look forward to. Here are some idea starters. Once a month help out at the local cat rescue and send pictures to friends encouraging adoption…add a visit to the ice cream after dropping off clothes at the donation center…when walking our dog, try to stop in at the local senior home and make some new friends…you get the idea. As you add and sustain these rituals, helping becomes more of who you are as a family, not just what you do.
All five strategies are simple and can become easy-to-repeat habits if we can add a little patience and discipline to the process. We want to make helping a natural part of our lives—and make it fun too!
It can be easy to get stuck in responding to our individual needs and lose our capacity to serve beyond ourselves. Paradoxically, when we take time to help, our own burdens shrink, and our hearts open in some powerful new ways!