Kids and Charity Work: Empathy and beyond

kids and charity work

Slice of Hope

How do you get kids to understand and get interested in charity? I asked a number of experts and kids who participated in charitable activities. The answers varied but everyone agreed how important it is for kids to understand empathy and how charity work helps cultivate this life skill. From a penny you give to a stranger, to the Sparkle Box around Christmas, to volunteering at the soup kitchen or the pizza & music at The Slice of Hope, there are many acts of kindness and giving that can teach kids to value others and take pride in helping others.

The basics of Empathy

Before kids engage in any kind of charitable project, they need to know why. Charity work starts with emotion, so making that connection is key to understanding why this kind of work needs to be done. “To get kids interested in charity, they need to be able to identify in themselves how others may be feeling”, says Dr. Christine Weber, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist in Long Island, NY.

If a child celebrates Christmas, and always gets toys, he or she may be able to reflect about how it would be to get no toys.  Kids generally feel very sad for children who have no toys because they are able to feel what it would be like if they did not receive any. As long as a child has a developing sense of caring for others, they have the capacity to help. So parents should start out choosing charities that kids can identify with, and as they grow, change or add to the charities.

“Giving begins with a well-developed sense of empathy,” says Dr. Weber. This empathy develops from the child trusting the mom (or other caregiver) that she’ll be there to soothe him when he is upset/crying. “As the child’s development progresses, the relationship turns reciprocal and the child learns to reflect and give back in a similar way as the mother, and attempt to soothe her.  The child’s attempt to soothe the parent helps the child feel better. This is an early foundation for empathy.” Empathy grows and develops with age and experience. And this brings us to the question of at what age kids can understand empathy. While kids notice emotions early on, it is closer to the preschool age that they start to develop a better understanding of why. “As the child’s own emotional repertoire expands, along with language, and the child notices the feelings of others and experiments with modeled responses like soothing, their empathy grows”, says Erik Synnestvedt, Director of Glenview New Church Schools.

“As they grow, and social circumstances become more complex, opportunities to be kind and supporting and empathetic also grow and become more complex.  The kind of empathy that we hope children will come to understand is more of a state of being than an action.”

Charity work is a learning process

Glenview new churchThe kids at the Glenview New Church School recently completed work on homemade blankets and pillow cases for sick kids at Lutheran General Hospital in suburban Chicago, with the help of Kevynne Smith, a child life specialist in the pediatric ICU at the hospital and an alum of the school. This work is part of the school’s progressive style of project-based learning. In this case, the children ran several fundraisers to collect money for supplies and then learned the basic elements of sewing, to make the wonderful blankets. Erik Synnestvedt – Director of Glenview New Church Schools – shared a few ideas on how to embed learning targets into the project: “Every project offers the teacher a rich opportunity to introduce learning targets.  Teachers at different grade levels look at the experience through the lens of curriculum.  The research stage of the project to create blankets offers opportunities to learn about estimation and prediction, measurement, materials, the materials supply chain, etc.  The teacher asks guiding questions in keeping with certain learning targets of the current curriculum.  If a current learning target is, I can create a brochure to convey key ideas with supporting information, the children may be asked to consider how they will present that information efficiently and effectively.  Or, perhaps, this turns into a speech and drama target.  The teacher has to be able to work with what comes up rather than forcing things.  The assessments are then a part of the activity and the children are given plenty of post-activity reflection time and opportunities for self-assessment relative to the overall project as well as the specific learning targets.” This learning-based approach helps kids understand on a practical level what is involved in a charity project and the steps needed to complete it.

Parents set an example

School certainly provides ample opportunity to implement charity projects start to finish, but when it comes to the understanding of why these kinds of projects are important, parents are at the front line. It starts at a very early age – watching you help in the soup kitchen or paying off a stranger’s layaway. Elaine Shimberg shares this:

“When my kids were little, they had garage sales and sold toys and games they were tired of. They gave the money to a children’s charity. Now they have their own kids and I see my grandkids having lemonade stands to send money to the USO and asking for books at their birthday parties and taking them to our children’s hospital. We talk about the importance of philanthropy and helping others. They see their grandparents and parents walking the walk. That speaks volumes.”

Understanding the impact of their charity work

Kids want to help others. There are so many charities started by kids these days, it’s wonderful! One such charity is Simon Says Give. Started by then 7-year old Mandi Simon in 2011 because she wanted a better world for people to live in, this 501C3 non-profit company offers birthday celebrations and gifts to those in need. “We believe they want to make a difference”, says Dina Simon, Mandi’s mom and SSG’s President. “They want to help others and do good things. They always don’t know where or how. Which is a big reason we took the time to create Simon Says Give. We believe there are a million Mandi’s out there and we want them to join us in celebrating kids. Our volunteer kids get to interact with the kids that are helping and that is when Magic happens. When the kids get to see the joy and get to see they are just kids like them. We believe its not just empathy but it’s connections and knowing a difference was made and then the child wants to continue to learn more on how they can continue to give of their time and talents to get involved in making a difference.”

There is no substitute for a hands-on and face to face.  Erik Synnestvedt of the Glenview New Church School highly recommends it: “If it’s possible for the kids to go to the hospital to visit the children and hand them a blanket, witnessing the bright eyes of a happy recipient is incredibly powerful.  Sometimes that’s just not possible because of distance or privacy or some other issue.  In that case, we like to see a lot of pictures.”

Cultivating their Passion

As Dr. Weber suggested, finding a need that kids identify with – lack of toys for little kids, or no birthday parties for school-age kids, lack of food/housing as they get older – are a few examples. As kids get older and realize what they do have, they have the capacity to see what others may not. This is why it’s so important to find that area of interest. You have to “figure out what kind of giving interests your child”, says Jan Helson, CEO if Pixel Entertainment and creator of Global Game Changers brand. On the Global Game Changers site, kids have the opportunity to learn about different types of charities, tell their own stories of what they do to Ignite Good, learn what other kids are doing to make the world a better place, and even use their points to help The Global Game Changers Superhero Alliance decide where to donate money each month! “What’s their passion? Perhaps they would like to do something to help kids like them who are sick or in need. Perhaps they are interested in the natural world and would like to do something to help the environment”, says Jan Helson.

“Encourage your child to think of a way that she/he can give back to a charitable initiative that they feel a connection to. Engaging your children in giving back to something they care about will make them life-long givers.”

Using their Talents

It is sometimes easy to follow in your parents’ footsteps. Or, kids can offer contributions with their talents. “Unleash their talents!&quot, encourages Jan Helson. “Expose your child to the tools necessary for them to create his/her own charity project by combining their passion for a particular cause with their strengths or interests. Is your child a baker? Then she/he can have a bake sale to raise money for a favorite charity. Perhaps she/he is crafty and can sell trinkets made. Athlete? Organize a sporting event to raise awareness for a charity they care about. My daughter Rachel is an actress. She put on a show to benefit the Susan G Komen Foundation after discovering three of her aunts had been diagnosed with breast cancer. You can show them online tools for raising money, and give examples of what other children have done to make the world a better place.”

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