Raising Do-Gooders: Getting Kids To Do Service Projects

by | Dec 18, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

The first time I realized the power of involving kids in social justice projects was when one of my sons was just four. The two of us had gone to see the movie The Bear, and because it was rated as family oriented, I wasn’t prepared for the scene in which a bear is brutally killed. Well, neither was my four-year-old: Zach was devastated, and he sobbed all the way home. At some point during our drive, he exclaimed adamantly that the president of the United States should make a rule against killing bears. Probably to appease him more than anything else, I suggested that he write the president a letter, and as soon as we drove into our driveway, Zach turned into an animal rights activist. He ran inside; grabbed an envelope, paper, and pencil; and asked me to write down his words. Within five minutes, he’d written a letter to the president pleading with him to write a law stopping the “bear killers.” He then sealed and stamped the envelope and confidently put it in the mailbox. What I never expected was a response: over the next weeks Zach received dozens of letters from various government officials regarding animal rights, hunting laws, and even a few about bears. And the satisfaction on Zach’s face each time he opened a letter was priceless. “See, Mom,” he’d tell me, “they know it’s wrong, and they’re going to do something. I helped the bears.” That day my four-year-old taught me just how important it is to help kids know that their actions can make a difference. I also learned a very important lesson: it’s never too early to start. 

7 Tips to Get Kids Started Doing Service Learning Projects and Make the World A Better Place

As is true in the case in most families, each of my children has different interests, skills, and strengths. To have had all of them involved in the same service project wouldn’t have been wise. Instead, my husband and I tried to encourage each child to find a project that matched his concerns and talents. My politically oriented son set up campaign headquarters at his high school for his chosen presidential candidate; my son who is great with younger kids taught Bible school to five-year-olds; and my eleventh grader volunteers weekly at the fire department and completed his civil defense training so he can help out in a community emergency. Because our kids chose projects that supported their passions as well as their strengths, they not only enjoyed volunteering but were committed to their causes.

Often the most difficult part of getting your child to get involved in a social justice project is knowing where to begin. Here are a few ideas passed on from other parents on how to start kids doing projects of their choice. My take–the earlier you start the better. And there’s no time better than during the holidays:

1. Choose a project based on your child’s interests and talents. The first step is to help your child choose something that he is good at and enjoys doing.  Tune into problems that concern your child and start by looking around your neighborhood. For example: property that needs cleaning up, a park where kids no longer feel safe playing, homeless people living on the streets, shelters that need sprucing up, or elderly people who are lonely. Look for other service projects in the yellow pages under “Social Service Organizations.” Keep track of global issues that interest your child, such as Internet hate sites, movie violence, child abuse, drugs, gender inequality, oppression, poverty, human rights, slavery, prison reform or racial injustice. Help your child analyze the good and bad points of each possibility and then choose the one problem he wants to work on most.

2. Research the topic. Next, help your child find out as much information as she can about the problem. The library is always a good place to start: magazines, newspapers, and the Internet are good sources of information. Ask teachers, kids, neighbors, relatives, coaches, scout leaders, and city officials and write to state officials and government groups. Call organizations familiar with the topic for more ideas. A word of caution: don’t be discouraged if the organization is not receptive to actual kid involvement and only encourages your child to collect money and donate possessions. I found that true with all too many. Stress to your child that she doesn’t need an organization to make a difference. Any small action is a start.

3. Think of all possible solutions. The next step is to help him brainstorm all the possible ways he could help remedy an unfair situation. Write down all ideas and then help him select the few that he feels most comfortable with, and enthusiastic about and that are most realistic. Suppose your child is concerned about the homeless living in the park, and he brainstormed these solutions: build a shelter, get a hotel to house them, put beds in the park, give out blankets, raise money for cots. Now have him choose the ideas he feels are most manageable and that he wants to commit to doing. After a lengthy discussion, he might realize that getting a hotel isn’t so realistic (right away, anyway), and might choose instead to canvass his neighbor and school for blankets and to advertise in the newspaper.

4. Enlist others in the cause. Many kids enjoy volunteering with others: a friend, your family, Grandma-the more the merrier-so ask your child if she would like to do her project with someone and, if so, find other people who agree with her cause. Some kids like to form clubs, which can include neighborhood kids, classmates, scout or church members, or just friends. The more people in the group, the more energy they have to make a difference.                                                           

5. Plan for success. The more your child thinks through his plan, the greater the likelihood he will succeed. So help him organize for success by asking him what resources and people he will need for his cause. For instance, if your child has chosen to volunteer, you might post a large monthly calendar for him to jot down volunteer days and times; a young child can draw a happy face or other symbols. If your child is starting a letter campaign for new legislation, ask, “What do you need to start your campaign?” Then help him list such items as stamps, addresses of officials, computer, printer ink, envelopes, and stationery. If he needs to raise money, encourage him to that he might make flyers to advertise his cause, and suggest places to post them and people to contact. If he needs petitions signed, help him think of good places for signups and come up with ideas about where to borrow folding tables and clipboards. Emphasize that he should always tell you his plans and never go anywhere unfamiliar without an adult.

6. Implement the solutions and evaluate progress. Now encourage your child to carry out her plans. Often getting started is the hardest part for kids, so you might ask, “What is the first thing you need to get started?” Support her efforts so that she carries out her plans. Stress that the best-laid plans never go smoothly, so help your child evaluate her progress and change any areas that need correcting.

7. Celebrate efforts. Whether your child volunteers once a year or once a week, writes one letter or a thousand, support his efforts and affirm that she’s helping to make the world a better place.

For more ideas on boosting social justice, empathy, kindness, respect and sensitivity, refer to the chapters in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.