Charity Begins At Home:     
Encouraging A Giving Spirit In Your Grandchild
By: Shannon M. Dean

In today’s hurried and material-driven world, families sometimes have to make conscious and continuous efforts to avoid becoming overscheduled, overwhelmed and disconnected. Constant media images which encourage kids to believe their worth is tied to material possessions, and technological advances like palm pilots, email, cell phones and ipods, can overburden us with too much unimportant information and contribute to the lack of habitual, meaningful communication and intimacy. It’s no wonder most of us are hungry for the opportunity to slow down, reconnect, and shield our grandchildren from a me-driven society. Families who offer their talents and resources to others go a long way in counteracting such stressors and instead place the focus on strengthening gratitude and contentment, finding a sense of purpose, emphasizing family ties, and building upon the charitable spirit inherent and necessary in all humans. And the process is much less burdensome than you may think.

Children Are Born With Empathy
Children are born hard-wired with the spirit of charity. That’s apparent in the toddler who weeps at the sight of an upset playmate, the preschooler who offers his teddy bear to a sick sibling, or the school-aged child who grabs a sponge when grandma is washing the car. Yet, as they grow, children receive society’s not so subtle message that it’s sometimes unsafe or unwise to care. Fortunately, families are paramount in encouraging the actions and behaviors that foster empathy. Research shows that families who openly express warmth and compassion raise more empathic children and the process can begin at birth. A caregiver who routinely gives a patient, timely and consistent response to an infant’s cries or a toddler’s skinned knees, gives that child the message that helping others is important. Once a child is secure that the world is a safe and loving place, it’s easier for him to develop empathy. Experts say that often the first opportunity for a child to help others is in his own environment, so many recommend assigning household responsibility. “Children need jobs,” says popular author and pediatrician Dr. William Sears. “Once a child learns a sense of responsibility for the household, a sense of responsibility to society will come naturally in the next stage of development.”

Kids Who Help Others Help Themselves
Children who reach out to others enjoy an increased sense of well-being, self-worth, serenity and relaxation. Helping others builds up a child’s defense system against temptation and stressors. Kids learn it feels good to do the right thing, so it’s easier for them to say no to the wrong things. Since their personal worth is affirmed by their kindness toward others, they often don’t need to search for it in material possessions or poor choices in friends or behavior. Volunteering as a family can ensure the elusive “quality family time” while uniting members toward a common goal. Away from video games and television, families come to know and appreciate each other in new and exciting ways, and the effect can be long lasting. Children who volunteer with their families are twice as likely to volunteer as adults and pass it on to their own children. Mary Thoele, author of Family Serve: Volunteer Opportunities for Families (Quality Life Resources) says “volunteering is one of the ‘loudest’ actions you, as a family, can take to show children what it truly means to be a contributing member of a community. By role-modeling this type of behavior, parents are beginning a tradition of compassion that can be passed on from one generation to the next.”

Even The Busiest Families Can Fold Giving Into Their Schedules
Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family’s Guide To Volunteering: Doing Good Together (Robins Lane Press), says finding time to help others is easier than you may think. The key, she says is to take a careful look at activities you already make time for and seek opportunities that can be added to those. Families who already enjoy crafts as a hobby can make get-well cards or toys. Supplies for those in need could be gathered while doing your own errands. Families who are animal lovers may enjoy hosting a guide dog. Freedman says it’s smart to consider practical criteria, like your family’s personality and unique talents, your desired outcome from the experience, how much time you are able to commit, and your grandchildren’s ages, abilities, and emotional maturity. Very sensitive children may be upset by some situations, so use your unique knowledge of your child and ask the organization to give you a clear picture of what to expect. Friedman suggest starting small, with a one-time/no further obligation commitment. If all family members enjoy the small experience and want to repeat it, consider adding on, but always be conscious of over- committing. It’s much easier and more comfortable for everyone to increase your commitment if you find you have more time than to have to cut back and feel guilty because you’ve taken on too much. Kathy Landau, a mother who volunteers as she can with her three children, says families shouldn’t feel they have to make a large commitment: “every donation – of time or energy or interest – has an impact. It all counts and it all makes a difference.”

Teaching children to care and offer their time, efforts and empathy to others is a win win situation. Helping others can give your grandchild experiences and skills that will help defend him against the stressors of our "me-first" society and will serve him and future generations of your family for years to come.

Shannon M. Dean is a freelance writer and mother of two. She often writes about families and lives in Odessa, Florida. Her website is www.shannonmdean.com.

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