Gift-wrapping kindness: Helping others can offer children a unique kind of joy

A photo illustration shows a set of arms reaching upwards with hearts in the palms of outstretched hands.
Tell you child that while money helps, it's not the only way to make a difference. (Image: Adobe stock/Illustration: Dave Chrisom, Boston Children's Hospital.)

The holidays are a time for not just receiving gifts but also giving back. It’s the ideal time to teach young children about the importance of helping others and to guide older children toward opportunities that allow them to volunteer and make a difference.

“Volunteerism and giving are important traits to learn,” says Miranda Day, director of family and volunteer services in the Hale Family Center for Families at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Children see there’s more than just their personal needs. They recognize they can be contributors to their community with their hearts and minds.”

While there are many ways to give back, children should connect with a cause that excites them and provides an understanding of the value of charity, Day says. Otherwise, they’ll view volunteerism and giving as a chore, and their interest might fade. It’s also important for them to see that dedicating their own time to a worthy cause often does more good than simply donating money.

Showing the significance of giving can start at an early age

Instilling the value of giving can start as soon as a child is a toddler, Day says. Your three-year-old can, for example, help with easy chores in the kitchen. Even though you won’t be able to convey the full meaning of giving in a conversation, your child might still recognize that pitching in made their parent happy. And what becomes a point of pride to help family, she says, will someday blossom into something larger. 

You can also connect the feeling they have when someone helps them to the appreciation that others feel when they are supported, Day says. “You can say, ‘Remember how you appreciated it when someone helped you tie your shoes?’ Relate that everyday moment to show how people are grateful for acts of kindness.”

Helping your child find the ideal cause can be easy

Many children want to connect their benevolence to news events and situations they learn about in school, such as causes that fight climate change or rebuild communities after a disaster. Indeed, your child can make a difference. It’s simply a matter of finding an outlet that matches their age and interests.

Your child might, in fact, already be volunteering at school, through their sports team, or organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But if you need help finding the right match, there are resources that connect children to endeavors that encourage giving and kindness, including Doing Good TogetherVolunteerMatch, and Family-to-Family.

Read the fine print before helping out

Just keep in mind that not all causes are an ideal fit for your child. Some organizations have a minimum age for volunteering and some will accept only a certain kind of donation that can be out of a child’s reach.

You can open the door to giving by showing your child which opportunities best align with their age, interests, level of commitment, and understanding of what’s behind the cause. Your young child might want to adopt an abandoned dog or cat, for instance, but may not fully understand what it will take to care for the animal in the long run, Day says. Or your young teen might want to volunteer at a hospital but isn’t ready emotionally to interact closely with sick patients. 

Day adds: “Having them do it because they have to is not sustainable. They may lose their interest or not truly understand the value of it. Giving back works best if it is something they’re passionate and curious about.”

Set a foundation for them to do more as they age

As your child learns about giving, help them understand that while money can help, it’s not necessary to make a difference, Day says. Donating secondhand items to organizations such as homeless shelters and libraries is just as beneficial.

And few pursuits are as rewarding as sacrificing personal time to directly help others. Just as a toddler can see that helping around the house pleases a parent, older children won’t forget how they made the day of a senior in a nursing home or a homeless person at a shelter. There’s no better time to make that kind of difference than during the holidays.

Learn about volunteering at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Share this: