Want to know the secret to a kinder, more compassionate world? Start setting the example when your children are young. To instill a sense of empathy, you can engage in volunteerism as a family to role model a generosity of spirit, time and materials. Children often learn these in school, but as a family, you can take these lessons outside of the classroom. The upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service is a great place to start.

Here are some tips on how to make the most of your family volunteer project, avoid common mistakes and help your child gain lifelong compassion and an understanding of human dignity.

Finding the Project

When choosing what volunteer project to do with your child, try to think about issues that reflect your family values and interests. Families that love to cook can work to end hunger. Families that enjoy the outdoors can clean up a park. Your child will get more from the project if they can personally appreciate what they're helping to do.

While many nonprofits host volunteers at their locations, some parents choose to create volunteer projects independently at their homes or at local community centers. If you choose to do something like this (making blankets for seniors or sandwiches for a shelter), be sure to research the needs of the recipients fully. The best of intentions can sometimes lead to problems. For example, sometimes PB&J sandwiches get dropped off at shelters that don't have storage for them, and so they go to waste. Check the recipient organization's "How to Help" page, and do your research before you start!

Preparing for the Project

Once you have your project, have a conversation with your child about what you'll be doing and why. A good way to start is by asking your child how much he knows about the issue already. From there, you can lead a more age-appropriate conversation with him. When he has questions, you can look up the answers together.

When discussing the issue, talk about the root of the problem first, but then focus on what he can do personally to help. It can be scary to hear about a big problem with no solution, so be sure to focus on how small things can make a big difference, and that he has the power to help.

When speaking about the issues, try to use words that put people first. For example, instead of "helping the homeless," say "helping people experiencing homelessness." This helps to explain that being homeless is a situation, not a type of person, and shows that the project will be helping a person, not an "issue."

Enhancing the Project

Be sure to focus on quality over quantity. For example, if you are shopping for a coat to donate at a coat drive, encourage your child to try on the coat and make sure it is warm enough. Even if he can get two less-expensive coats for the price of one, remind him that if the coat does not keep the person warm, it is not helpful. Trying on the coat will also help him imagine the person being helped.

While you may feel tempted to have your child witness poverty to "see how good he has it," remember it is not the responsibility of the people you serve to teach your child that he is lucky.

Try to level the playing field when the project is going on to help enhance your child's empathy. Do things that help him understand that those being served are just like him. For example, after a snack bag-making event for an after-school program, the event organizers had the children who volunteered each take and eat a snack bag they made. This helped them understand that the children they were helping were similar to them and reinforced the need for quality-control. We want volunteers to put the same care in making something for a stranger as they would for a family member.

After the Project

Discuss the experience as a family, sharing your own reflections, too. Ask about how your child felt after the project, what surprised him and what positive elements and challenges will be remembered about the experience.

Consider encouraging your child to start a Gratitude Journal, entering something he is grateful for every day or week. You can start a habit of doing it in the mornings or before bedtime, and include an entry after engaging in volunteering.

Books are also a great resource for children to further understand issues and gain a sense of compassion. They can emotionally respond to characters and learn more about the effect issues have on them. For volunteering book lists by topic, check out doinggoodtogether.org/bhf/read-together.

Encourage children to do volunteer projects on their own or with their friends. Empowering them to take action will teach them leadership skills and possibly a lifelong interest in helping people.

For great volunteer projects to do with your kids on MLK Day and beyond, check out jconnect.org/Doing-Good. And for even more guidance on ensuring your children get the most out of community service, check out these helpful guides: bit.ly/DoingGoodGuide.


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Sarah Rabin Spira runs PJ Library in Greater Washington and PJ Our Way for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Through Federation's Doing Good initiative, Sarah runs family volunteering programs and writes resource and Jewish value guides for families who want to engage in social action. She has been working in Jewish education for more than 15 years, lives in Washington, D.C. and has two children in elementary school.