By Susan Collins-Smith
MSU Ag Communications
During the holidays, children often focus on the gifts that await them, but now is the perfect time for parents to reinforce the importance of giving.
“This is a wonderful time of year for building appreciation and letting children experience the joy of serving others,” said Cassandra Kirkland, family life specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “There is a unique joy that comes from serving others, and that joy is what we want children to get excited about during the holidays.”
Children can learn compassion for others by participating in charitable events and volunteer projects, Kirkland said. When choosing a service task, remember that most children relate best to other children.
“Parents can sign their kids up for soup kitchens, church holiday ministries or toy drives,” Kirkland said. “To build a sense of connection, it’s important that the volunteer events present an opportunity to interact directly with those in need when possible. It also would be helpful to find an event centered on an area that interests the child.”
It is important to choose projects that are age-appropriate. Younger children are not as skilled with social interaction, and older children can help choose the project so they have a sense of ownership, Kirkland said.
Karen Benson, Extension child and family development agent in Neshoba County, said families should choose projects they care deeply about, especially if this will be a child’s first encounter with charitable giving.
“Children recognize enthusiasm and often enjoy working in pursuits their parents are passionate about,” Benson said. “Once a child sees a need, they are likely to want to do something to help. Experiences like volunteering to deliver food baskets, visiting home-bound individuals, taking baked goods to neighbors, or adopting a pet from a shelter help children recognize that others have needs.”
Charitable attitudes start at home. Children who help with chores and tasks around the house develop a spirit of cooperation with others, Benson said.
She recommended serving or giving to others as a way to celebrate special events throughout the year.
“Every birthday and holiday is an opportunity to teach children to be thankful and think of others,” Benson said. “With every gift we get, it is fun to give a few to someone else.”
Good projects for small children include making greeting cards for servicemen and women on active duty; donating a present to a foster child; writing a letter to Santa for an ill child; and writing thank-you notes to often-forgotten servants, such as the minister, postman and custodian.
Recommendations for older children include feeding the neighbor’s pets when they are away on vacation; volunteering at a local animal shelter or youth development center; sweeping the porch for an elderly neighbor; and raising funds to donate items to less fortunate children.
Kirkland said families can find reputable charities and organizations in need of volunteers by contacting the local United Way, a national system that catalogs community-based charities. Universities and community colleges often have partnerships with reputable organizations that need volunteers.
“Often, community-based organizations have already crafted activities for the populations they serve, and they are only looking for volunteers to provide the manpower,” Kirkland said.