40 Ways Kids Can Volunteer, Toddler to Teen

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“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”  Anne Frank

When we make service work a normal part of our lives we don’t simply teach our children strong core values, we demonstrate these values in action.

Often volunteering isn’t “official.” A family does yard work and errands for a housebound neighbor. Or they compile information and pass out fliers to get a safety initiative passed through city council. Or they put on a garage sale and donate all the proceeds to benefit a local shelter. They are making the community a better place through their own efforts. The side effect? They give their children a wonderful dose of can-do attitude.

When families reach out to help others, their children learn that this is a natural response. After all, the word “humane” is a variant of the word “human.” The definition of “humane” includes demonstrating better aspects of the human character such as kindness and compassion and showing respect for other people’s views. The word used to define us also describes the qualities essential to forging a society based on mutual regard.

And science tells us that giving makes us happy, from toddler on up.

There are many creative ways to volunteer based on local needs and your child’s interests.

1. Regularly visit a “grandfriend” at a nursing home, assisted living facility, or in the neighborhood. Play card games, do crafts together, teach each other new skills, make up stories, exchange advice, and build a real connection.

2, Volunteer to deliver Meals on Wheels in your neighborhood, perfect for parent and young children.

3. Raise a service dog, typically a puppy training commitment of two years. There are many organizations. Here’s a partial list:

4. Grow vegetables and offer extra produce to people who don’t have space to garden, to new parents who don’t have time to garden, to a hunger center.

5. Set up a playgroup for babies at your local nursing home or assisted living facility. This is something I did, which started a family tradition of getting kids involved in the community.

6. Have little kids draw special pictures. Use these as wrapping paper, tucking inside them a piece of wrapped candy or silk flower, along with a note like “thanks for being so nice” or “you made my day.” Then keep these in the diaper bag and when you’re out together, stay on the lookout for a nice cashier, helpful librarian, or kind friend to hand out a surprise package. It cues kids to see goodness everywhere.

7. Let little kids offer popsicles to garbage truck workers. For more ways the smallest kids can engage in acts of kindness, check here.

8. Create ways to share with your neighbors, from a toy swaps to co-ops. Consult the Center for a New American Dream guide and any of the great guides offered by Shareable.

9. As a family or with a group of kids, develop a program to present at a nearby library, daycare, or community center. It might be a puppet show, play, or craft project. Or get your dance class, choir, or martial arts school to give a demonstration at a daycare, nursing home, or community center.

10. Form a band or acting troupe with friends and give free performances.

11.  Make some no-sew dog toys for animals in shelters using inexpensive fleece remnants or old torn jeans. Use old blankets, pillows, or fabric remnants to make pet beds for shelters. Ask if you can volunteer to walk dogs. Raise funds to buy food, litter, and other items the shelter needs. And consider adopting a rescue animal. There are rescue organizations for all sorts of companions, from horses to hamsters.

12. Do errands, cook for or otherwise help out a someone dealing with an illness.

13. Pick up litter in your neighborhood or wildlife area. It’s safest to do this wearing gloves and using a pick up tool or a reacher. Put each piece of trash in a box or garbage bag, then recycle or throw away when you’re done.

14. Protect natural, cultural, and historical resources by volunteering for the National Park Service Youth Conservation Corps (age 16 and up).

15. Work on sets, distribute tickets, usher patrons to their seats, or perform for your local community theater.

16. Learn rehabbing skills while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Rules may vary, in our area older kids can volunteer along with a parent.

17. See if your local food shelter will let families work together to set tables, serve beverages, and clean up. If not, you can raise funds to donate food. We know a family that twice-monthly cooks an entrée for 15 people, along with several other families cooking the same entrée, so it can be served that evening at a free dinner offering.

18. Walk dogs, collect mail, shovel snow, or rake leaves for someone in your neighborhood who needs the help.

19. Serve as unofficial welcoming friends for immigrants who could use help navigating unfamiliar streets and who need assistance learning the customs and colloquialisms that aren’t in any handbook.

20. Repair and donate such items as toys, household items, bikes, or computers.

21. Volunteer with Red Cross Youth Services through your local Red Cross branch. And make sure kids and parents take a CPR/first-aid course so everyone is ready to volunteer lifesaving services if necessary.

22. Write letters to deployed service members. For more snail mail ideas, check out 38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail.

23. Produce a neighborhood newspaper or e-letter.

24. Volunteer to help out with Special Olympics.

25. Connect with teens around the world through Unicef-sponsored Voices of Youth.

26. Certify your backyard, even your apartment balcony, as a wildlife garden through the National Wildlife Federation.

27. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies.

28. Network with other young people working on causes and get small grants to fund your project through Do Something.

29. Certify your dog as a therapy dog to volunteer in hospitals and schools.

30. Form a Peace Jam club and work on positive projects together. (pre-teen, teen)

31. Adopt a town monument and keep it clean.

32. Volunteer to help your library run an Edible Book Festival.  For more library-related service ideas, check out Celebrate Hug Your Librarian Day.

33. Make treats and deliver them to your local police or fire station.

34. Volunteer as a family to help at a Ronald McDonald House in your area.

35. Make warm scarves to donate. Collect clothing, blankets, toys, disposable diapers, and personal care items and donate to homeless shelters.

36. Get involved with Youth Volunteer Corps.

37. Plant extra seeds and share the plants. You might set up a seed or a plant exchange in your 4-H club, church, or other organization.

38. Organize to build a playground in your neighborhood.

39. Earn a President’s Volunteer Service Award for your volunteer work. People of all ages can sign up, track their hours, and search for volunteer opportunities through United We Serve.

40. Earn the Congressional Award, which recognizes initiative by American youth in four self-determined goals areas: Volunteer Public Service, Personal Development, Physical Fitness and Expedition/Exploration. The award is earned individually or with friends, at one’s own pace. 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

  

Many More Ideas 

The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving

The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering: Do Good, Have Fun, Make a Difference as a Family!

The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference

The Teen Guide to Global Action: How to Connect with Others (Near & Far) to Create Social Change

It’s Your World–If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers

A Kids’ Guide to Protecting & Caring for Animals: How to Take Action! (How to Take Action! Series)

77 Creative Ways Kids Can Serve

How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist: 330 Ways to Make a Difference in Your Home, Community, and World – at No Cost!

Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play

The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking

Politeness Recovery In Progress

 

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Politeness is the dodo bird of our times. No one is quite sure what killed off civility but it’s obvious that two-year-olds aren’t growing out of tantrums or a sense of entitlement. Instead they just get bigger, becoming toddler adults. They drive like idiots, foster workplace stress, simultaneously overindulge and ignore their own kids, feed on the negative energy of angry pundits, and blame everyone else for their own problems. They need to learn a little empathy, or at least the rudiments of feigned empathy we call politeness.

But some of us are way on the other side of the spectrum. We’re so empathetic that we tremble with concern for the feelings of other people. And animals. And plants. (I even tremble with empathy for spiders.) It wouldn’t occur to us to put ourselves first or to act rudely (although my good intentions may come across as annoying, just ask my family).

Some may have been hardwired this way from birth. The rest of us were trained to be too polite for our own good. Right around the time we started crawling we were taught to be respectful and considerate at all times. No exceptions. If asked how we are, we learned the answer should always be affirmative followed by a kindly inquiry about the other person. Never mention any peril you may be in, the object is to focus on others. This means if you’re bleeding, you deny there’s any real problem (oh it’s nothing), don’t bleed conspicuously, and God forbid, don’t complain about whatever caused you to bleed. If you are offered a favor, graciously decline. Even if it’s chocolate. If someone is actively causing you difficulty, either put up with it without complaint or extricate yourself in a way that doesn’t embarrass the other person.

Maintaining this level of politeness rarely leads to an authentically lived life. It’s more like an affliction. We do our best to avoid winning games, getting the best grades, pushing ahead at work, sticking up for ourselves, saying what we mean unless it’s “nice.”  Being too polite actually put me in dangerous situations more than once. Nice at all costs has got to go. Kind, yes. Honest, yes. Nice, not always.

Politeness recovery is a slow process and often difficult. It’s complicated because I’m naturally opinionated, sardonic, and forthright. And sometimes silly. Suppressing that side of myself has never been easy. But I’m not giving up my polite side by any means. Politeness is essential if we’re to live together in any kind of harmony. I’ve found genuine politeness has a surprising way of bringing out the best in other people. It presumes they are basically good (a core principle of non-violence) and many times, that’s all that required. (Now, if only that principle were applied on talk radio and in snarky web threads.)

More importantly, I want to be authentic. Treating people with respect and understanding simply feels right. It comes from true compassion, far richer than any thin soup of poor self-worth. The generosity and love of kindness stimulates more of the same.

I aim to give up only the parts of my Good Girl upbringing that hold me back from my eventual goal of becoming a rowdy old lady. My politeness recovery is still ongoing but my friends are amazing role models. They’re well ahead, evolving before my eyes. Some days I’m swimming in the muck, other days I join them on land. I’m often awkward, occasionally splattering mud as I go, but I’m a creature in progress trying to be polite as well as real, empathetic as well as centered, serious but silly too. Like a dodo bird who hasn’t given up on her wings.

 

It Really Does Take A Village

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You’ve heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You’ve probably also noticed slap backs like, “I’ve seen the village and it’s not raising my kids.”

If we actually consider the proverb we see the wisdom it contains. Throughout nearly all eras of human history, parents weren’t isolated from a supportive network of other people. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends not only nurtured children, they made good parenting much easier. When a baby cried there were other arms to carry it or carry on the mother’s tasks as she nursed. When a toddler played there were other eyes keeping watch. When a child was ready to learn there were people available to show him how to fashion reeds into a basket, to fish in the river, to tan hides, to choose the right plants to make medicines. When a teen sought role models there were many to emulate, people who had been guiding forces her whole life. Children grew up with an invaluable sense of connection to kinfolk and community.

Today we don’t benefit from the educational richness of traditional village life where children can see and take part in the real work necessary to sustain life. Few of us live near extended family members. But we can foster the development of our own “villages” in at least three ways. Here’s how it worked for me.

1. Establish a supportive network.

When my first child arrived I didn’t know another soul mothering a newborn. Although my parenting and life choices were far different than my mother’s, I found myself calling her nearly every day. It was comforting to talk to someone who cared that I’d been up all night, even if I had to filter out suggestions like feeding rice cereal to a newborn. I also started attending a nearby Le Leche League group to be around other mothers with small babies. There I found women who shared ideas, laughter, and lightly used baby clothes.

When we began homeschooling, once again I felt isolated. All my friends’ children were school bound. So I linked up with several homeschooling groups. Online is great but in-person is better in dozens of ways. My new homeschooling buddies and I had approaches to learning that spanned the spectrum from unschooling to school-at-home, but our lively conversations veered away from judgment. We cared about each other, looking forward to field trips and park days as much as our kids. We particularly enjoyed the way our kids’ unique curiosities blended, creating the kind of quirky fun so typical of homeschooled kids.

2. Create a “chosen” extended family.

Sure, I felt closer to my parents once I became a mother, but I also needed to expand my tribe. The first woman I met with a newborn became like a sister to me. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but it didn’t matter. As more children came into both our families we watched each other’s kids, exchanged household items, went on day trips, and supported each other through crises.

My group of parent-friends expanded. This made it easy to take turns carpooling and babysitting. It also made for wonderfully boisterous get-togethers. My extended family also included a group of women who called themselves “crones,” new farming friends, and an elderly Scottish bagpipe instructor. These people cast all sorts of light in our lives.

3. Develop rich connections in the community.

When I moved it took a year to meet the people across the street. It was not an overtly friendly place. I was determined to make it into a real neighborhood. I invited people over for potlucks, Halloween parties, and all sorts of kid-centric fun. When new families moved in, I greeted them with homemade goods and an invite to my next event. It became a place where my kids felt known and accepted. One son learned small engine repair from a retired man who liked to tinker, another son liked to visit the guy a few doors down who sculpted in stone, my daughter sang impromptu operas in the front yard without a moment’s self-consciousness.

We stretched to make community connections as well. We struck up conversations that turned into remarkable learning experiences, giving us access to experts in all sorts of fields. My kids have spent years volunteering in Red Cross, recreation programs, wildlife rescue, and more. We make our home part of a larger village, for example hosting people from overseas, running a food co-op, and holding social action meetings. Like our home, the community became a place where my children’s interests were nourished. We have a village now. Whatever direction we extend a hand, we find a friendly hand waiting

Village building resources.

*Get in touch with family members, near or far. Reach out for support even if it doesn’t come in the exact flavor you’d prefer.

*Connect with other parents at the park, playgroups, and nature preserve. Build mutually supportive networks by exchanging your time and talents.

*Join groups that sustain your interests in a positive way. Ask for information about homeschooling groups and programs at your public library. If you are nursing a child, try your local Le Leche League chapter.  Consider joining the Holistic Moms Network. Find or start any sort of group on Meetup.com, from a stroller-pushing-dog-walking get-together to a kids’ chess club. 

*Enjoy the sense of belonging found in active membership in a church, charity, outdoor group, or any organization where families are welcome.

*Establish connections by becoming “regulars.” You may choose to go out for breakfast each Saturday at the same locally owned place where the staff knows your kids. You may help out at a CSA farm as a family. You’ll also feel more at home in your community through regular visits to your library, recreation center, and park.

*Be the neighbor you’d like to have. Extend kindness and warmth as you get to know people. Perform acts of service along with your kids, whether shoveling the driveway of an elderly neighbor or volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Even the smallest children can perform acts of kindness.

*Develop a tradition of community service. There are plenty of ways for kids, toddler to teen, can volunteer.  And help them get involved in civic affairs, clubs, and community organizations. They’re creating their own place in the village too.

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We Don’t Need No Age Segregation

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My teenaged son just spent the day with middle-aged guys he met online.

Let me explain. Before he could drive, my son earned enough money shoveling out horse stalls to buy a 1973 Opel GT. Or what was left of one.

The car sits out back in a dark barn, its classic little outline like a rough sketch waiting for functional automotive details to be filled in again. He is restoring it himself, but not alone. He’s in touch with an online community of automotive enthusiasts from around the world. They eagerly share experiences and resources on forums. They also boast, complain, and talk about their interests just as any friends do.

My son and his father have met some of these folks at auto meets and car shows. When my son discovered an Opel club not far from our family farm he was invited to join. Today he and his older brother drove out for a day-long gathering. Although my boys were the youngest by decades they enjoyed an open-hearted welcome.

Yes, I realize there are significant concerns about teens talking online with adults, let alone meeting them. I try to keep those concerns in perspective. Studies of online behavior by youth indicate the biggest risk they face is peer harassment, not sexual predation. Today’s young people are much more overprotected than previous generations even though violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. Overly cautious, restrictive parenting practices actually inhibit a teen’s growth toward maturity and responsibility. So I watch, ask questions, and recognize that my son benefits from online friends and mentors.

It’s a pivotal coming of age experience to be accepted by elders one admires. Until that time it’s hard to feel like an adult. These experiences are frequently depicted in movies, but children and teens in our culture are almost entirely segregated from meaningful and regular involvement with adults.

These days kids spend their formative years with age mates in day care, school, sports, and other activities. So their adult role models are largely those whose main function is to manage children. This subverts the way youth have learned and matured throughout human history. Children are drawn to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They want to see how people they admire handle a crisis, build a business, compose music, repair a car, and fall in love. Separate kids from purposeful, interesting interaction with adults and they have little to guide them other than their peers and the entertainment industry. That’s because our species learns by example. Ask any child development expert, neuroscientist, or great grandparent.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing, and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

Because my kids are homeschooled they’ve have more opportunities (and a lot more time) to hang out with interesting adults. My daughter volunteers for hours each week alongside a woman who rehabilitates birds of prey. Another of my sons has played bagpipes for years with an 80-something gent who once served as a Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. The age range of my kids’ friends spans decades. Natural mentors such as these are a rich source of authentic experience. And they’re in every community. It’s not hard to find them.

Along with other homeschooling families, my kids have also taken a close look at the workaday adult world. The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. An engineer took us through his testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. We’ve spent days with potters, woodworkers, architects, chemists, archeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics and others.

People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. Age segregation goes both ways–adults are also separated from most youth in our society. After an afternoon together we’ve gotten the same feedback again and again. These adults say they had no idea the work they do would be so interesting to kids. They marvel at the questions asked, observations made, and ideas proffered by youth that the media portrays as disaffected or worse. They shake hands with young people who a few hours ago were strangers and say, “Come back in a few years, I’d like to have you intern here,” or “We could use an engineer who thinks the way you do. Think about going into the field,” or “Thanks for coming. I’ve never had this much fun at work.”

So today my teenaged son hung out with fellow Opel aficionados. They trust he will drive his car out of the dark barn and into the sunlight soon. It will be a shared accomplishment, the kind of thing that happens all the time when young people aren’t separated from the wider community.

unschooling teens, homeschooling teens, teens free to learn,

I wrote this piece nearly two years ago for Shareable.com. Since then this son of mine has become a mechanical engineering student at a private college. His fellow classmates brought with them years of advanced placement math and science classes. The advantage he brought? Lots of hands-on experience, an active approach to learning, and insatiable curiosity. He’s at the top of his class.   

How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities

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Helping out early=long term success. (Image: 2.0 clogozm)

Years ago my two older kids, about seven and nine at the time, were getting ready to wash the floor. A neighbor girl knocked at the door asking to play. When my son told her he was going to wash the floor first she begged to be included. Although this girl had more monetary advantages than my children could have imagined (summer camp, private skating lessons, hundreds of TV channels) she was entranced. She’d never seen kids doing chores, let alone kids in charge of cleaning a floor. She pitched right in as they scooted furniture out of the way, then swept. I gave them a bucket of slightly soapy water and they went to work with rags, scooting across the wet floor on their knees like crabs, giggling as the floor got wetter and their scooting became sloshy sliding. Their method didn’t matter to me. I was holding the baby and diverting the toddler while peeling potatoes and finishing up a work-related call. I was pretty sure the floor would be somewhat cleaner when they were done. They dried it with towels, moved the furniture back with appropriate grunting and groaning, then slumped on the couch. They looked entirely relaxed, as people do when satisfied with a job well done. When I got off the phone I came in to thank them. They were admiring how the floor caught the light and cautioning our toddler to keep his sippy cup on the table.

After that day the neighbor girl asked if she could do chores every time she came over. It seemed funny at the time, but I think now that she recognized she’d been missing the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie found in working together.

The floors aren’t spotless in my house. The bathrooms are also far from perfect. But I’m totally at peace with this. That’s because my kids handle much of the cleaning around here. I’m happy to do the cooking (or more truthfully I have control issues about what goes into the food my family eats). And I don’t mind being the family laundry wench, although I know kids are capable of handling their own laundering tasks. But in the spirit of “we’re all in this together” I’ve expected my kids to handle a sizeable share of household (and farm) work ever since they were small. I still do.

Timing

Start your chefs early. (Image: woodleywonderworks)

Actually, starting young is the key. When toddlers beg to help fold laundry or wash the car with us it’s easier to send them off to play so we can get the job done ourselves. But this is exactly the time to foster a child’s natural helpfulness.

It’s also a powerful way to promote positive development in all sorts of areas. Research shows that children who participate in household tasks are more likely to succeed in adulthood.

 

Twenty years of data analyzed by professor Marty Rossmann at the University of Minnesota found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood on measures related to education completion, meeting career goals, and maintaining good relationships with family and friends was whether they had begun doing chores in the preschool years. This association did not hold up when young people did not begin helping out around the house until the mid-teen years. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities.

Forty-five years of data from the Glueck Study of inner-city males (part of the longer-running Harvard Grant Study) found that willingness and ability to work in childhood — shown by holding part-time jobs, participating in household chores, or taking part in school clubs or sports — was a stronger predictor of adult mental health than factors such as social class or family problems.

We tend to spend a lot on activities and products for our children assuming this enriches their lives but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with cooking toys, he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but a child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Movement and Hands-on Experience

how movement builds bodies and brains, chores=success,

Movement builds bodies and brains. (Image: spacecadet)

Helping out engages young children in activities that promote movement-cued development. This includes large motor activities like digging in the garden, carrying a watering can, putting away groceries, and sweeping with a broom. It also includes fine motor tasks like using a screwdriver and tearing lettuce for a salad.

Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who regularly engages with manipulatives (arranging veggies on a platter, setting the table, sorting socks) and applies real-world math (measuring and pouring coffee beans in the grinder, taking things apart and putting them together, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts when they are introduced later. These movement-based tasks are also closely linked to the brain development necessary for reading and writing. (Find out more about this in Sally Goddard Blythe’s wonderful book, The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning.)

Growing as a Person and a Family

chores build relationships,

Shared tasks build relationships. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Children accustomed to flashy toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it they’re bored. The slower pace of yard and household tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried or left out. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, slow down so you can make working together enjoyable. Letting a small child spread peanut butter, cut sandwiches, and pour milk into cups from a small pitcher affirms the value of the present moment. It also makes an ordinary lunch into a tea party.

The benefits don’t end for older children. Hands-on experience in all sorts of tasks and hobbies promotes learning, builds character, and helps to form the basis of our future selves. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers he found many credited their expertise to attributes learned through hands-on activities. In his book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Wilson emphasizes that resourcefulness and self-definition arise from the use of our hands more than from the dictates of our educational system.

In a way, doing tasks together puts parent and child on more even ground. So often we parents are rushing to schlep our kids to practice or lessons or other kid-oriented events, making them the pivot around which a family’s activities revolve. Taking part in regular tasks together, even if we’re pulling weeds on opposite sides of the garden, affirms the sort of mutuality that advertisers tell us is only found in pricey vacations. Of course time afterwards for a nice game of hoops and some cold lemonade builds bonds too.

As our children grow, doing tasks together can continue to strengthen our relationships. Moments of meaningful interaction happen easily when washing dishes, folding laundry, fixing the car, or walking the dog together. Working on shared chores helps a child’s contemplative side emerge, prompting discussions that may never have happened otherwise. This is true between parent and child as well as between siblings. I remember my mother bemoaning the arrival of our dishwasher because we no longer took turns washing and drying, ending a relaxed half hour of post-dinner conversation each evening.

It’s easy to make these activities a tradition. Teenagers who have always helped out when a parent puts on snow tires, cleans out the basement for a yearly garage sale, or cans pickles may grumble when asked, but chances are they’d feel excluded if left out too. In part, who we are is defined by what we do. Growing up with hands-on lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, and working towards a goal helps to shape character. And it transforms pickle-making from drudgery to an important family ritual.

Delayed Gratification

early responsibility for success in adulthood,

Labor’s fruits may seen a long way off. (Image: OakleyOriginals)

This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.

We model delayed gratification each time we choose to work for a later or larger goal. This includes saving, making do, and making it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family pitches in to rake a neighbor’s leaves while she’s recovering from a broken hip. We teach it when we let a child see that if he doesn’t do the laundry when it’s his turn, there won’t be a clean team shirt to wear to the game. And we show that it’s expected every time our kids pitch in with the ordinary jobs necessary to run a household.

This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification.

This is pivotal for success. Multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) found that children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals. Delayed gratification is also related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.

Expecting children and teens to take an active part in running a household gives them plenty of opportunity to gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may seem like returning to the old adage, work first, play later, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

Skill building

give kids real work, make chores meaningful,

Loud chores are more awesome. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Regular tasks allow our children to see for themselves how the world works. They grasp principles of science and math as a seed becomes a tree, as boards are transformed into bookshelves, as flour and yeast turn into bread. They develop traits such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors of their own. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as our children become proficient at the jobs necessary to sustain their families, they also see themselves as capable. That perception transfers across all endeavors.

There’s no denying that children who participate pick up useful skills. They see that maintenance is easier than waiting till the car or laptop breaks. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. While they are making real contributions to running the household they’re actively learning how to cook, launder, clean, make repairs, maintain a vehicle, budget expenses, and handle other tasks which are essential for an independent life once they’re adults. Wonderful lessons in cause and effect are reinforced when children complete work and benefit from the results. Seeing oneself as an agent of useful change, priceless.

They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four or 40, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy chopping mangoes, strawberries, and pineapple into tasty chunks, try renaming the result “Sophie’s Special Fruit Salad” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose

meaningful chores for kids, finding purpose in chores, raising responsible kids, teaching delayed gratification, building impulse control,

Wring some meaning from work. (Image: Pink Sherbet Photography)

When we stack firewood to prepare for the upcoming winter, make a gift to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have purpose and value. As our children participate along with us, they feel the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that has meaning.

So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.

Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

Beyond Chores

teaching impulse control, delaying gratification, families working together,

The way we do things in our family. (Image: Evil Erin)

I’m not fond of the word “chores.” It implies that kids and adults have tasks that are set apart from the rest of our lives. Making work around the house and yard a regular part of our lives together seems more natural.

I think it’s valuable to get work done together as much as possible. For me, the simplest way to respond to grumbling has always been, “that’s just how we do it in our family,” without engaging in arguments on the topic. And of course balance is essential. Children and teens (well, all of us) need time for daydreaming, play, socializing, relaxation, projects, and all of life’s other joys.

My kids have their own chores, which they sometimes rotate. They haven’t always done them well or on time by any means. Accepting a floor as clean as a child will get it is part of having children participate. And I’m pretty laid back about things like clean bedrooms. (I remind them we try to adhere to the Firefighter Rule: Could emergency workers navigate a bedroom if necessary?) I understand that kids put less energy into tasks that don’t seem to have much importance. They recognize that a clean bedroom doesn’t affect our family’s functioning, while they know for sure that cutting and stacking firewood will keep our house warm. Hence, the firewood is done right while their rooms are often just short of scandalous.

We’ve never given them an allowance, mostly because we haven’t been able to afford it. Families have counted on children throughout history for work that was reliable and essential. Today we are fortunate that we don’t have to rely on our kids to survive, but we can expect them to contribute. The tasks may not be fun or interesting but they are necessary. They demonstrate to every child that he or she is a valuable contributor to the well-being of the family. And hearing, “Thanks, we couldn’t have done it without you,” feels good too.

I’m pretty sure growing up this way has contributed to how super responsible my kids are now in their teen and young adult years. They see a pile of boxes I need to load for our food co-op and carry them, never waiting for me to ask. They gladly stop whatever they’re doing to pitch in for an hour or all day when help is needed in the garage or barn or back yard. They are incredibly capable people who are far more astute and skilled than I’ll ever be. They can milk cows, fix tractors and cars, cut and bale hay, install plumbing, make meals, diagnose a sick chicken, hang drywall, identify spiders, back up their political opinions, weld, put on a roof, well, you get the idea. Sure, they have busy social lives and enjoy keeping their faces aimed at screens just like everyone else. But they recently spent an entire weekend helping a family member pack, move, and make repairs. They worked hard and displayed nothing but their usual good cheer. After exhausting 14 hour days I asked if they’d rather have skipped this particular task. Every one of them affirmed that it was no big deal. And I heard my words come back to me, “It’s just the way we do things in our family.”

Portions of this article were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

We Choose Our Own Role Models

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Image courtesy of s2-s2.deviantart.com

There’s no predicting who we choose as our role models. Teachers, coaches, and religious leaders are held out as exemplary choices and for good reason, since mentors are linked to greater success in adulthood. Despite adults’ well-meaning efforts to foster or even assign mentors, each one of us is drawn to people we find inspiring. It’s only in looking back that we can see more clearly how our childhood role models play a part in shaping who we become.

This is obvious looking at my husband’s growing up years. He wanted to understand how the world around him worked, and like most children, he wanted to find out by getting right in the midst of what fascinated him rather than play with plastic hammers and screwdrivers. So he sought out neighbors who let him fix cars alongside them and who welcomed his help running their small businesses. What he gained from these experiences still benefit him.

It’s not as obvious in my life so I have to strain to make those connections. I had plenty of freedom to ride my bike and play without too much parental supervision, but seeking out other grown-ups never occurred to me. In fact I can only think of a single adult outside my family who made a lasting impression. Her name was Mrs. Dosey.

I met her during a criminal investigation. Well, sort of.

When I was around eight, my older sister developed a brief infatuation with espionage. She deemed herself a private investigator and permitted me to be her sidekick. We practiced sidling around without being seen, took notes on people’s behavior, and looked for a mystery to solve. My sister hit the jackpot when she discovered bones in a field across the street. Bones! This could be dangerous. My sister identified the house in closest proximity to the bones. It seemed like a strange place. The yard had almost no grass. Instead the front was crowded with strangely cropped trees and the back sported a clothesline (unheard of in our suburban neighborhood) and a jumble of fenced-in areas—sinister indeed. We practically trembled with fearful anticipation.  My sister instructed me to remain completely silent, she’d question the suspect.

When she rang the doorbell it was promptly opened by a sturdy middle-aged woman wearing an apron and orthopedic shoes, her hair mashed down by a hairnet. When she invited us in I noticed she had a trace of an accent. Against all parental advice about strangers, we walked meekly inside.

Mrs. Dosey was busy in the kitchen but gladly welcomed two girl detectives. She didn’t raise an eyebrow when questioned about bones. She explained that she raised ducks, which she slaughtered for meals on special occasions. Although it wasn’t the murder we anticipated, it was death nonetheless. My sister and I shivered.

Mrs. Dosey talked to us as she went back to her culinary project. We learned that the cropped trees in her front yard were an apple orchard and the back yard was crowded with vegetable gardens, berry bushes, and poultry pens. She served us milk and homemade cookies. We stayed quite a while, curiously watching her work.

Mrs. Dosey was assembling a wedding cake she’d made from scratch. She showed us how she was separating the layers using tiny soda bottles between them, to be covered by flowers from her yard. Finally she said we could come back another time, she had a few more things to finish before her daughter’s wedding that was taking place the next day. My sister and I weren’t even disappointed that our murder case had collapsed. We’d met someone who seemed like a different creature than the frosted hair moms of our generation.

It didn’t occur to me till years later that Mrs. Dosey was completely matter-of-fact about two little girls sitting at her kitchen table, inches from this towering confection. She was entirely unruffled on a day most mothers of the bride are harried, even though she’d made the dress, the cake, and if memory serves, was making the reception food as well.

I never knocked on Mrs. Dosey’s door again. My sister and I dropped the private eye business to become girl scientists. We waded into the pond in sight of Mrs. Dosey’s house observing duck behavior and slogged home covered with what we optimistically called “duck muck.” My mother, who began buying apples from Mrs. Dosey every fall, seemed to regard the woman as an oppressed version of her gender. She pointed out Mrs. Dosey’s heavy labor around the house and yard, noting that this woman rode a bike with a basket to the store every few days for groceries. The emphasis seemed to rest on evidence that Mr. Dosey didn’t share those burdens. To me, Mrs. Dosey seemed remarkably happy. And savvy as well. She waved when my sister and I were out but was wise enough to spare us that social indignity if we were waiting with friends at the school crossing near her house. I saw her on that bike for years after I left home. She never looked any older or any less cheerful.

I credit my husband’s role models for helping him grow up to be capable, positive, and wonderfully open-hearted. But not for a single moment have I ever linked my own life choices to Mrs. Dosey’s example. After all, I planned to change the world by elevating peace, ecological harmony, and justice. If I had time I hoped to fit in writing novels. And parenting. Okay, I also wanted thick hair and thin thighs.

None of that happened. I’m not a UN peace negotiator, my activism is local and my writing is gentle. I’m not blocking whaling ships with my fellow Greenpeace buddies, instead I tend to vegetable gardens and haul buckets of kitchen scraps to our livestock. My choices look more like Mrs. Dosey’s, although I can’t pretend for a moment that I’ll ever have her patience. I was raised to believe I could be accomplish anything if I worked hard enough but I’m learning that we can save the world right where we are. In part, that means opening the door on our busiest day ever to welcome the questions of little girls.

Who in your growing years made an impression on you and how do you see their impact in your life today?

Let The Youngest Teach You Mindfulness

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Image from jesse.millan’s Flickr photostream

Ask any child. When adults meet them for the first time, standard questions include, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” right after classics like, “What grade are you in?” and “What’s your favorite subject?”

Such questions, unintentionally, gauge a child’s progress toward adulthood. That’s because adults tend to be future oriented. We’re distracted from the present moment by the need to plan and work toward any number of goals—what to do about dinner, how to juggle next week’s schedule, when bills can be paid. These distractions take our attention away from what is in the here and now. When we think ahead so often we have less time to notice, let alone appreciate, what makes up our lives minute by minute.

What is impatience except denying the value of the present moment? The watercolor effect of rain on the window, the meandering quality of a child’s conversation, the long wait for a pot to boil—these can be occasions to experience impatience or opportunities to breathe deeply and be present, gratefully.

Leaning so often toward the future unconsciously demonstrates to our children that later is more important than now. Yet as we know, later never comes. As long as we’re alive there’s always “later” to strive toward. Worse, we are surrounded by advertiser-driven messages telling us that we aren’t there yet, that we need to do more or become something more in order to have friends, be successful, find love.

The nature of early childhood is the perfect antidote to this hurry-up attitude. That is, if adults truly pay attention to the lessons the youngest model for us. Young children who are not yet pulled by the adult world’s messages are oriented to the present moment. When forced to disregard what is vital to their bodies and spirits—pretending, daydreaming, playing, snuggling—they rebel. They are who they are, where they are. They’re not caught up in the future tense which dimishes the here and now. They demonstrate the oldest way of knowing.

Pay close attention to the youngest children in your life. Let them help you learn solutions to our cultural overdrive.

As we slow down we have time to truly know each other and to truly know ourselves. We’re more aware of the messages our bodies send us and can act on those signals before they become symptoms. We have time to reflect. Time to remember our dreams when we awaken. After all, time is the only true wealth we have to spend.

slowing down, slow movement, child-pace, mindfulness, mindful living, mindful parenting,

Image from kla!’s Flicrk photostream

Mentor: Fancy Name For Grown-Ups Kids Need

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image courtesy of LisaW123’s Flickr photostream

The little boy just wanted to “do stuff.”

His parents let him traipse around with his wagon on garbage collection day. He’d take home pieces of wood, carefully pulling out nails to store in a can, so he and his friends would have the necessary materials to build forts or go-carts. Occasionally he found small engines that he’d do his best to fix. No one intervened to tell him his pursuits weren’t safe, although he was expected to clean up any mess as well help around the house.

His neighbors didn’t mind having this kid appear whenever they did something interesting—fix a car, build a shed, tend a greenhouse full of plants, run a garage sale. He was eager to learn and even more eager to help, so they did what adults have done throughout time. They shooed him away occasionally but mostly they shared what they knew.

He made use of what he learned. By the time he was 12 or 13 years old, these neighbors let him take on their home and car repairs, recognizing he was able to do a more exacting job than they might have done themselves. He gained more than skills from the adults in his life. He may have been leaning over a car hood with Clyde, but he was also learning how to understand the function of each system by paying attention. It seemed he was only helping Mr. Christman with the heavy tasks of operated a greenhouse but he was also taking in something important about growing old with dignity. It appeared he was working alongside his grandfather but he was also seeing how reputation, honesty, and treating each person with respect builds a small business.

Because he developed richly rewarding relationships with people of all ages, relatives as well as neighbors, he had plenty of examples to draw on as he matured. He saw how different people handled decisions, disciplined their children, laughed off trouble, solved problems, stayed in love.

His experience was rare. It’s becoming rarer all the time.

Throughout nearly all of their childhood and teen years our kids are segregated in day care, school, sports, and other activities. Even when they benefit from the very best programs, if they’re restricted to the company of same-aged peers doing what adults consider educational and enriching they are deprived of the riches found through fully engaging in the wider world. This subverts the way youth have matured throughout human history, when children learned right in the context of family and community—freely able to watch, imitate, and foster relationships with people of all ages.

We put kids in an oddly uncomfortable position when most adults in their lives are focused on them. Children want to center themselves, not have adult attention centered on them. Kids long to model themselves after adults who are engaged in meaningful, interesting, and useful activities of their own. When their experience of adults is limited to those who are there to care for, educate, or entertain children (important callings but not all that adults can do) the dynamic is shifted. The age-old desire to gain mastery and take on responsibility, eagerly becoming a capable adult, doesn’t have the same pull.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

How can we remedy this?

That little boy? He grew up to be a remarkably capable, beautifully open-hearted, and endlessly positive person. I married him.

mentor, building competence through imitation, children at work,

Bringing Kids Back To The Commons

involve kids in community, end age segregation, youth volunteers, business engagement with community, non-profit engagement with community, babies in nursing homes, daycare in nursing home,

Image by mollicles420.deviantart.com

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and in better moods. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

I contacted a nursing home around the corner. The administrator was enthusiastic. Then I talked friends into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. They were somewhat wary, but agreed to give it a try. Finally I got a local store to donate a carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. We were ready.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. Our babies grew into toddlers, the elders became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. We were awed. Something as simple as our presence, sitting on the carpet playing with our children, made a difference to people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. And we noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. (Here’s how to set up your own playgroup in a nursing home.)

I’m still not sure why the very old and young are kept apart from life on the commons. Vital and engaged communities are made up of all ages. And children have fewer opportunities to take an active part than almost any adult. This shortchanges everyone.

Throughout history, the young of our species have learned by getting involved. Children long to take on real responsibilities and make useful contributions. This is how they advance in skill and maturity. That is, unless we restrict them to child-centered activities.

Young people are also drawn to seek mentors. They want to see how all sorts of people handle crises, start new enterprises, settle disputes, and stay in love. But today’s young people are largely kept from meaningful engagement with the wider community. They’re segregated by age not only in day care and school but also in most spheres of recreation, religion, and enrichment. When we keep kids from purposeful and interesting involvement with people of all ages they are pushed to find satisfaction in other (often less beneficial) ways. Meanwhile, our communities are deprived of their youthful energy and innovative outlook.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to reconnect children with our communities.

  1. Involve children by giving them real input and responsibility in civic groups, churches, co-ops, CSA’s, arts organizations, clubs, and neighborhood organizations. What about a child who is a dedicated rock enthusiast but the local lapidary club only accepts adult members? Propose a joint adult/child membership, giving that child the same (age factored) opportunities to build social capital in the club. A similar approach can be taken with organizations that refuse to take youthful volunteers. Offer to give your time in partnership with the child, a two-for-one volunteer bargain. Adult advocates are often necessary to pave the way for genuine youth involvement in many groups.
  2. Give children contact with the workaday world. They need to know people with a range of hobbies and careers. Seek out those who are passionate about chemistry, bird watching, farming, the Civil War, engineering, astronomy,  geology, blacksmithing, wood carving, well, you get the idea. Something vital is transmitted when one person’s enthusiasm sets off a spark of interest in a child. We’re rarely turned down when we ask to learn from others. People who love what they do can’t help but inspire kids and, they often tell me, the kids reignite their hope for the future of their work.
  3. Help local businesses tune in to children’s interests. For example, a bakery might hang children’s art on the walls, make meeting space available for a kids’ chess club, host Invent A Cookie contests, open the kitchen for tours, offer apprenticeships to aspiring young pastry chefs, teach parent-child baking classes, invite speakers to explain the science of yeast and flour, give cupcakes as prizes for youth community volunteer hours, etc. Businesses that are truly engaged in this way inspire loyal customers, they also enliven the community.
  4. Create age-bridging partnerships, as we did with babies and nursing home residents. Non-profit organizations are great places to start. One successful program called Girlfriend Circle started due to complaints. A group of women at a senior center often told a volunteer that they had no hope for the future because children “nowadays” are rude. The volunteer offered to set up a tea party for the ladies that included her daughters and their friends. At that first event the girls were seated between their older hostesses. Everyone enjoyed a lesson in napkin origami. Then they took part in a Q&A to learn about one another. After sharing refreshments both age groups were eager to meet again. The Girlfriend Circle met bi-monthly for several years, finding their friendships instructive and rewarding.
  5. Include young people in civic affairs, giving them genuine input into programs and policies. This works in Hampton, Virginia. Young people take leadership roles by holding conferences and open forums, advising municipal divisions, and helping to run the Hampton Youth Teen Center. City administration also includes a Youth Commission, with 24 youth commissioners, 3 youth planners, and one youth secretary–all high school age.
  6. Develop a tradition of service, starting at an early age. Need ideas? Here are 40 ways kids can volunteer, toddler to teen.

This comes full circle for me, right back to dogs and volunteering. A boy who’d once been a pint-sized member of the play group we held at the nursing home talked his family into raising puppies to be trained as service dogs. By the time he was 12 years old, this boy gave promotional talks about this program to clubs and schools. I attended one of his speeches. He started off with some anecdotes about exasperating puppies. Then he went on to describe the generosity and hope his family felt each time they attended graduation ceremonies for fully trained dogs, ready to serve. I know community involvement is a path to wholeness. I’m convinced it has a lot to do with this boy’s smile too.

Portions of this piece excerpted from Free Range Learning.