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Giving Back Rocks

The saying “to give is to receive” really expresses how I feel about altruism and contribution. We sometimes think of contribution being selfless, but research shows it is highly mutually beneficial. One is contributing to something or someone outside of themselves yet getting huge gifts in return. Why is it that we want our children to learn how to contribute to the greater good; to “give back”? What’s important about that?

Fundamentally, we are social creatures. We crave a sense of belonging, whether it be in our families, peer groups, communities or even on a global scale.  Contribution, no matter how small, can feed this sense of belonging and even connect us to others in ways we never thought possible. This is one of the reasons kids contributing around the home is a great way to make them feel good. It also has the secondary benefit of lessening your workload. Nice by-product, huh?

Monetary contribution is a great way to introduce kids to charitable giving. However, I would argue that’s one tiny part of understanding how we can have an impact on the people and the world around us. Money is helpful, necessary and an inseparable part of our capitalistic society, but it doesn’t penetrate below the surface in the same way that putting our “heart” into giving back does.

Having said that, a wonderful way to teach kids about money is to give them, as soon as they no longer want to put coins in their mouth, an allowance. It doesn’t need to be a lot – the amount is NOT the point. Split it up into the SAVE, SPEND & GIVE categories. You can never teach kids too much about money management. They will need that skill throughout their lives. Scientific research has also shown that giving money away actually activates the reward centres in the brain and makes us happier.

But, though a very important part of supporting causes, to take a line from Jessie J’s song, it’s really “not about the money” all the time. “We just want to make the world dance, forget about the price tag”. Good thing for you I can’t sing in writing…

Think of a time someone brought you something in a time of need. Maybe you were sick or grieving. Now imagine a child drawing a picture for you or giving you a hug in hopes it would ease your pain. It’s not the picture that DOES anything for you. It’s the care and mere fact they were thinking of you and your wellbeing that mattered. Thoughtfulness, empathy and “heart”, above all else (including money), I believe, is what connects us and gives us that sense of fulfillment and belonging.

Teaching our children to be thoughtful, empathetic and generous, not only benefits those around them, but creates a sense that they are important in the world. That money or no money, one can shift things for the better. What could be more powerful?

Feelings are key: It’s no accident that little ones learn about feelings in preschool – it’s usually a big part of the curriculum. After all, we don’t live in isolation. Reading feelings is incredibly important! Any chance you get to help them understand their own feelings and the others’ feelings, helps to nurture that profound sense of connection with those around them. I wrote a piece on “Reading Feelings” that includes some great kids’ books on the topic of understanding feelings and emotions, if you’re interested.

Share acts of kindness with reckless abandon: Hold the door. Say “Bless you” or “Gesundheit” when a stranger sneezes. Be respectful to your cashier or server at the restaurant/coffee shop/grocery store. Heck, say thank you to Siri (even if she totally misquotes you when you’re dictating a text). Carry a neighbor’s groceries from the car, take a meal to an elderly friend or relative – the more your children join you in these acts of kindness, the more they will understand how it feels to give back.

Gratitude: When you are with your family in a calm moment (or if calm is an elusive state, perhaps just “in a moment”), ask them what they are grateful for and share what you are grateful for. Robert Emmons, a Ph.D. and research scientist from University of California, Davis, says regular grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent! Boom – you’ve just made a winning parenting move with one question. Nice work.

Pay it forward: Though gratitude is a great jumping off point, be sure not to stop there. Gratitude on its own can just remain a state of mind… But we can do more than practice gratitude. We can teach our kids to take what we are grateful for and make a real, tangible difference. Turn gratitude into action and incorporate your kids’ interests to engage them.

Let’s say your little one says they are grateful for the park. Find ways in which to give back to that space – to contribute to it so others are benefiting too. Perhaps there is a spot where a tree fell in a storm. Look into working with the community to plant a new one. Or if they are grateful for their teddy bear, ask them if they have toys they don’t play with anymore that they would like other children to have so they can feel that same way. If they’re grateful for a friend, maybe they want to draw a picture for them? I’m sure you and your kids will come up with incredibly creative ideas. Even super simple ones can have an impact.

Kindness and thoughtfulness don’t have to cost anything. We have an endless supply of these resources if we chose to tap into them. Give your kids the opportunity to feel that sense of belonging and significance by showing them the difference they can make in the lives of others.