My daughter is in Daisies, which is Girl Scouts for the little ones between the ages of 4 and 6. Recently her troop was scheduled to volunteer at a local women’s shelter. The plan was for the girls to shop for and put together bags of toiletries for the women, sing them Christmas carols, and help serve dinner at the shelter.
At first, I had my reservations. I thought perhaps my daughter was too young to understand and be involved in this type of volunteer work. But after more consideration, I knew it was important for her to participate.
My daughter is already familiar with donating and volunteering. Over the last year, she has learned these concepts while helping me with things like spring cleaning and pulling together items for donation. She understands there are children and adults who are less fortunate than us and it is our obligation to help out in whatever way we can.
When she was younger, it was difficult to convince her to donate toys she no longer played with. Now she understands why we do this and is happy to give her older toys to children who will appreciate them. Already, she’s learning how rewarding it feels to strive to make a difference in the world.
With this volunteering event, I needed to explain to my daughter what a women’s shelter is and how we’re helping those who live there by donating items like shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. It wasn’t an easy talk to have with her, to explain that the women in the shelter don’t have their own homes and are in difficult financial situations where their basic needs aren’t met — things we so often take for granted. But, I told her, we can make a difference by helping them through small deeds. Doing something is always better than nothing.
My daughter understood and was eager to shop. She helped me find everything on the wish list as well as some cosmetic items like lip gloss and nail polish — her idea. When I asked her why she chose these things, she said, “Maybe the ladies also want to feel pretty after they shower and wash their hair.” I was truly amazed that someone so young, a 4-year-old, can understand that little things help people feel better about themselves. Something as simple as lip gloss may actually brighten their day because it really is the little things that lift us up. I want my daughter to learn this now and be appreciative for the blessings she has.
When she asked why these women don’t have homes or money or jobs, I told her that some people have gone through extremely tough times, that not everyone has family or a home like us. The reality of this left her surprised and sad and all the more ready to help out. And after this talk, I felt she was well-prepared to go to volunteer.
Unfortunately, the event got canceled when the bus transporting the women to the shelter broke down, but my daughter and I went ahead and dropped off our donations. Though we wanted to do more, this was still a learning experience for her, and I’m currently working on setting up another volunteer service for us to participate in.
Beyond volunteering, explaining the realities of life to your child in a way they can understand enriches their point of view. Yes, it can take difficult conversations that may at first shock your child, but why would you want to shelter them from reality? Isn’t it better for them to learn about hardship early so they can develop compassion and figure out ways they can help others? Don’t you want them to learn as much as they can from you before they encounter life’s challenges and have no context for understanding? I sure do.
I’ve encountered far too many children who are unaware of other people’s hardships. These are children who haven’t been given the opportunity to develop empathy and compassion for those outside of their familiar world. But now more than ever, we need selfless, caring, actively engaged people who want to make a positive difference in the world. We can raise children who feel a genuine sense of gratitude for the things they have and for opportunities to help others.
We have enough close-minded, self-absorbed people in this world. Raising our children to be better than that should be not only a personal effort, but also a community effort, whether that is volunteering through Scouting or other parent- or school-organized groups. In fact, research has shown that “volunteering is […] associated with the development of greater respect for others, leadership skills, and an understanding of citizenship that can carry over into adulthood.”
After all, we leave the world to our children. Don’t we want to make it a better, more rewarding, and compassionate place for them to flourish?