Q: My 7- and 8-year old sons participated in a holiday toy drive. It made a great impression and they want to do more. How can I nurture their desire to help others without it becoming a full-time job?
A: Parents work hard to help kids develop kindness, empathy and a motivation to act charitably -- to do things that benefit other individuals, groups or society as a whole. Kid-generated projects can "grow" these skills quickly.
"Neuroscientists say something goes on in the brain that makes us feel good when we help other people. When kids learn to lend a hand, they are motivated to do more," says California counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom) consulting.
Learning to give back shapes a child's life. "It builds character and encourages personal responsibility that helps them succeed in adulthood," says Jan Helson, co-author of "The Global Game Changers" (Pixel Entertainment, 2012), a kids' book on doing for others without expecting anything in return (theglobalgamechangers.com).
Your sons' project should fill a genuine need, have a realistic plan for execution, and be something the young organizers are passionate enough to see through.
"Start small. If it works, expand it," Gehley advises.
How do you identify a genuine need? "News stories are a great way for children to learn about challenges and spot opportunities to help," says Helson, especially when young people are part of the solution. Google "kids making a difference," and you'll find many inspiring stories.
Your sons' project doesn't have to take over your life. Once it gets rolling, folks will join in. For example, Kayleigh Crimmins, a police officer's daughter, noticed that some police dogs lacked bulletproof vests because departments couldn't afford them. She started Kids for K9s to raise funds so more dogs could have vests. Jaylen Arnold, a bullying victim featured in "The Global Game Changers," started Jaylen's Challenge to educate kids about the effects of bullying. Others joined to help both organizations grow.
Consider integrating your sons' effort into an existing framework. "Local service clubs and youth groups like to support young people's good ideas," says Gehley. "Many schools have community service programs to tap into."
Visit websites for charities such as Goodwill, the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. Identify the need that the organization fulfills, and discuss with your boys whether there's something they can do to support it. For example, many kids participate in the program Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. (The website unicef.org offers videos of children helped by Trick-or-Treat's donations.) Is there a way to expand the program in your community? Or, can your boys help collect, sort and donate gently used clothes, small appliances and toys to benefit a local charity's thrift shop?
These conversations are important, says Gehley, especially at this time of year when parents want to talk about the spirit of giving, not just spending. The Central Carolina Community Foundation created a card game, Talk About Giving, to help families have this conversation. For more information, go to yourfoundation.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)