The ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and the ability to bounce back from diversity.

We live in an age of selfies, where bullying is on the rise and divisiveness has increasingly become the norm. Societal messages tell us that our worth is tied not only to material possessions, but also to the superficial approval and envy that we obtain from social media “friends,” who sometimes barely know us. In this environment, it is socially acceptable to believe that we are the center of our own worlds.

Ironically, experts tell us that the acceptance and achievement we crave can actually come from helping others instead of focusing solely on ourselves. Since one key factor for future success is empathy, our children may be better served by cultivating a giving spirit instead of chasing recognition or developing an individual “brand.” Michele Borba, who wrote Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me-World, says that “the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and the ability to bounce back from diversity.”

So with empathy being so vital, how do we encourage our children to identify with causes larger than themselves? Experts say that not only is this task not as difficult as we might think, it can also be an enjoyable experience that offers the elusive family time that we all want.

Children Are Born To Care

Children are born hardwired with the spirit of giving. That’s apparent in the toddler who weeps at the sight of an upset playmate, the preschooler who offers his teddy bear to a sick sibling, or the school-aged child who grabs a sponge when mom is washing the car. Yet, as they grow, children receive society’s not so subtle message that it’s sometimes unsafe or unwise to care. Fortunately, families are paramount in encouraging the behaviors that foster empathy. Research shows that caregivers who openly express warmth and compassion raise more empathetic children. This process begins at birth and is often intuitive. Routinely giving a patient, timely, and consistent response to an infant’s cries or to a toddler’s skinned knee gives that child the message that helping others is important. Once a child is secure that the world is a safe and loving place, it’s easier for him to develop empathy.

Experts say that often the first opportunity for a child to help others is in his own home, so they recommend assigning household responsibility. “Children need jobs,” says popular author and pediatrician Dr. William Sears. “Once a child learns a sense of responsibility for the household, a sense of responsibility to society will come naturally in the next stage of development.”

Kids Who Help Others Help Themselves

Children who reach out to others enjoy an increased sense of well-being, self-worth, and optimism. Helping others builds up a child’s defense system against temptation and stress. Kids learn that it feels good to do the right thing, so it’s easier for them to say no to the wrong things. Since their personal worth is affirmed by their kindness toward others, they don’t need to search for worth in material possessions or in poor choices. Volunteering as a family can provide important quality family time while uniting members toward a common goal. Away from video games, social media, and television, families come to know and appreciate each other in new and valuable ways.

Children who volunteer with their families are twice as likely to volunteer as an adult and to pass it on to their own children. Mary Thoele, author of Family Serve: Volunteer Opportunities for Families says that “volunteering is one of the ‘loudest’ actions you can take to show children what it truly means to be a contributing member of a community. By role-modeling this type of behavior, caregivers are beginning a tradition of compassion that can be passed on from one generation to the next.”

Even The Busiest Families Can Fold Giving Into Their Schedules

Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family’s Guide To Volunteering: Doing Good Together says that finding time to help others is easier than you may think. The key, she says, is to take a careful look at your current activities and then find ways to incorporate volunteering into those events. For example, families who already enjoy crafts can make get well cards or toys. Supplies for a neighbor in need can be gathered while doing your own errands. Families who are animal lovers may enjoy fostering an animal for deployed military. Experts suggest starting small, with a one-time/no further obligation commitment. If all family members enjoy the small experience and want to repeat the process, consider adding on, but always be conscious of overcommitting. Studies show that when giving to others becomes too large of a commitment or an obligation, the potential benefits are lost. It’s much easier and more comfortable to increase your commitment if you find that you have more time than to have to cut back and feel guilty because you’ve taken on too much.

Teaching children to care and to offer their time, their talents, and their aid to others is a win-win situation. Developing their innate giving spirit will arm a child with skills that will defend him against the world’s stresses and will benefit him and future generations of your family for years to come.

Charitable Ideas For Busy Families

Creating For Other Kids

Children usually enjoy making crafts, designing cards, or writing letters. Many organizations are actively seeking families to provide lovingly crafted items, handwritten letters, heartfelt drawings, and cards. Most even offer easy step-by-step instructions. Typically, families complete the items and mail them to the organization, who in turn distributes them where they are needed. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Make a Hospitalized Child Smile: The website www.cardsforhospitalizedkids.com allows families to make handmade cards for distribution to hospitalized kids. Over 100,000 children have received cards from all over the world. Although families can use their own creativity to make the cards, the site offers many helpful suggestions.

Provide Comfort to Children Facing Challenges: Project Linus provides handmade blankets to children who are ill, traumatized, or who might benefit from the security of a comfort item. They offer many easy, “no sew” patterns. Although adults may need to cut the fabric for younger children, kids of all ages can choose the fabric and tie off the edges. Find more at www.projectlinus.org/.

Give Encouragement and Gratitude to Military And First Responders: Organizations like Operation Gratitude encourage families to send cards, drawings, and letters for the military, veterans, and first responders. The cards are added to care packages and many of the recipients say that handwritten items are the most cherished part of the package. Check out www.operationgratitude.com/express-your-thanks/write-letters/ for more information.

Sponsor a Family, Child or Animal

Your family might consider sponsoring a less fortunate family, child, or animal during the holidays, in emergencies, or year round.

Adopt a Family: The box project matches sponsor families to families in need. Families regularly mail household and school supplies, clothing, or other needed items. Visit https://boxproject.org for more information.

Sponsor a Child: Many organizations, like www.children.org can match sponsor families with a child in poverty. Families provide monetary support, school supplies, and letters.

Foster a Pet For Someone Deployed Or Hospitalized: Organizations like Pact For Families (http://pactforanimals.org) and Dogs On Deployment (https://www.dogsondeployment.org) match-up foster families to care for dogs whose owner is deployed or hospitalized.