How can you instill in your children the values of empathy, gratitude, helping others and giving back? Well, according to the experts and those who live a giving life volunteering in big and small ways, it's a no-brainer: Start early and lead by example.
"Kids tend to follow the lead of their parents pretty much about everything in life. If parents show empathy to people in the community -- helping people in their church, doing a volunteer service, working in homeless shelters, being kind and gentle -- their kids follow that lead, and fortunately, I think it's as simple as that," says Anthony K. Shriver, CEO of the nonprofit Best Buddies International, which he created in 1989 to foster one-to-one friendships between people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and people without such disabilities.
Shriver is a prime example of being raised by parents who practiced what they preached and instilled empathy in their children. His mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics, and his father, Sargent Shriver Jr., was founding director of the Peace Corps.
"Being involved in the community is the greatest thing you can teach kids to do. The spirit of giving back is beyond rewarding. It makes you feel like a millions bucks," Shriver says. It's "better than any new toy or new pair of shoes or new car." And though he says that getting involved with organizations is great, your service doesn't have to be structured.
Help your kids get involved in any way, Shriver says. They could do something as small as helping an elderly person get across the street or helping someone carry groceries. There are opportunities to be of service everywhere you look.
Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," believes that parents should "start young to plant the early seeds of pleasure in giving. The mirroring effect of even toddlers seeing the joy and gratitude of someone they've helped seals the experience in glue for life." She agrees with Shriver that it's critical for parents to model humility, gratitude, accountability, nonjudgment and equality in order for their children to understand and absorb these values, and she says parents should tap into their children's personal passion.
Eighteen-year-old Devin Hoffman's passion growing up was (and still is) horses. She volunteered through her church when she was very young and gave her spare time in middle school to tutoring struggling classmates in math. At 14, she volunteered at a therapeutic horse riding center for kids with disabilities. "I was a huge help to the maintenance and upkeep of the horses," she says. "But what brought me the most joy was seeing the young kids experience the same level of contentment and excitement that I have when I ride."
In high school, Hoffman tapped into her passion further, volunteering through a class assignment at Capability Ranch, which provides activities and events for kids and young adults with special needs. (Full disclosure: This nonprofit was founded by the writer.) "I'd help with ranch chores and riding for one to two hours every Monday, and even after the assignment was done, I continued this for the rest of my high school year and still help when I can," she says.
Hoffman is now in college, with plans to pursue a degree in business management. Wise for her years and clearly reflecting her parents' success at authentically instilling the value of service in their kids, she thoughtfully articulates the strongest argument for helping children of any age volunteer: "it's important for kids to help others in the community because kids are the future. And if kids have the mindset that we're all on the same team, then when they grow up, the working class will be that much more efficient. ... We need more people in the world who are willing to go out of their way for others.
Shriver agrees. "People think I'm crazy when I say it, but once you start doing it, it's addictive. It gives you an inner peace and inner calm and inner feeling of euphoria," he says. "Little things add up to changing the communities we live in and changing the human beings that live in those communities."
Every act of service is a chain reaction that makes the world a better place. Whether it's celebrating differences, finding comfort in new friends or bringing resources to faraway places, the possibilities for positive change are endless. As you gear up for the new school year, look for ways you can integrate service into your routine.