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For many children, the holidays are a time of receiving. If your children are like mine, they’ve looked through catalogs, created wish lists, and even begun dreaming of the wonderful presents that will soon (magically) arrive.
But what happens afterward, when the gifts have been opened and that initial excitement has waned? Two recent studies have proven what you may already know--receiving does not lead to lasting happiness for children (or adults).
But giving does.
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The act of giving--our time, resources, even our presence--is linked not only with sustained joy but with improving social connections and communities around us. With small and simple actions, children can make a powerful ripple through their homes, neighborhoods, and humanity.
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.
- J.K. Rowling
Read on for how your child can make a big difference, no superpowers required.
1. Be Kind
“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” Of all the explanations of kindness, Maya Angelou’s might be the best. Kindness is the choice we make when we smile at others, invite the new student to play, or even greet someone by name.
To practice kindness, consider these simple ideas:
- Watch “Color Your World with Kindness” and discuss how each small act of thoughtfulness has a ripple effect
- Read “Be Kind” by Pat Zietlow Miller for simple examples of kind acts, and reflect on the quote: ”Maybe I can only do small things. But my small things might join small things other people do. And together, they could grow into something big.”
- Create and decorate “Kindness Cards” or “Kindness Rocks” to hide in fun places
- Choose 2-3 ideas from 56 Random Acts of Kindness or from Kindness Bingo to try (donating outgrown clothes, sharing food with a local pantry, and leaving change in a vending machine are meaningful ideas)
2. Perform a Daily Good Deed
One way children can make the world a better place is through a daily good deed. This could be the same action every day, like setting the table for dinner, or a menu of activities they choose from each day.
To get started:
- Brainstorm a list of good deeds, and check out “30 Ways to Make a Difference” from Big Life Journal’s Kindness & Community Kit for suggestions. Use it to create your menu of good deeds
- Pick one idea from “5 Ways I Can Show Kindness Today” and try it
- Create a Good Deed Calendar with your regular calendar, posterboard or small bags for each day of the month
- Record positive actions with the “Kindness Tracker” from Big Life Journal’s Kindness & Community Kit
- Make it a family affair by committing to your own daily good deed
3. Plant a Garden
If you’re like me, the idea of creating a garden with your children seems a bit...daunting. But the benefits are clear: gardening engages the senses, helps children plan and set goals, and teaches patience (while also combatting a serious nature-deficit).
The act of planting a garden also teaches children to be stewards of the environment, gaining an appreciation for the effort of farmers and the importance of caring for the earth.
“A garden can be a doorway into a larger universe.”
-Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods
Here’s how to get started:
- Find a Space: Even if you don’t have a yard, there are options! Check out Park Rx America for a database of parks and schools with community gardens. Or consider a “container garden” on your deck or fire escape if no yard space is available
- Create a Plan: Decide what kind of garden you’d like to plant (ideas include flowers, herbs and vegetables. Tip: Flowering herbs are a great option for attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators)
- Get Your Plants: Try seeds from a hardware store, or “starter” plants that are already growing from a greenhouse, farmer’s market, or home improvement store
- Start Planting: Dig to loosen the soil, and add organic material like mulch or compost to ensure a bountiful and healthy garden. Arrange the seeds or starter plants according to your plan
4. Show Gratitude
The physical benefits of gratitude are numerous and well documented: decreased anxiety and blood pressure, and improved immune function (to name a few). But experiencing gratitude is good for more than just our bodies.
Consider how gratitude connects our world: noticing the kindness of a teacher, the clean air we breathe, or the safe neighborhood we live in reveals our interconnectedness with the world around us. (And may even spark an interest in helping others access the same blessings we have.)To harness the power of gratitude, try these ideas:
- Incorporate moments of gratitude into family time: morning or evening routines, family meetings, or other beloved rituals are perfect opportunities to talk about what we’re thankful for
- Write and deliver a “Letter of Gratitude” from the Big Life Journal’s Gratitude Kit
- Create a fun and beautiful “Gratitude Tree” and display in a visible spot
- Complete Big Life Journal’s 7-Day Gratitude Challenge
- Listen to Big Life Kids Podcast Episode 7: “Discover How Gratitude Can Change Your Life”
5. Champion a Cause
In Say Something, bestselling children’s author Peter Reynolds says the world needs every child’s voice. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” he explains, “as long as it comes from your heart.” We “say something” with our words, our actions, our creativity.
So how do we help our children find that voice? We can start by sharing some of the social and environmental issues impacting our world. (Stories like Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson, Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt and Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena are good places to begin).
Next, discuss the kinds of causes your children seem most drawn to or passionate about. Tip: Check out Big Life Journal for Tweens & Teens Chapter 2 for some beautiful activities and writing prompts to help children identify those interests.
If your child cares about…Animals
- Volunteer at a local animal shelter
- Donate pet supplies, newspapers or dog beds to a shelter
- Consider fostering a pet
- Read “10 Ways to Protect Our Planet”
- Start a community garden (see tips above)
- Complete a park clean up
- Read Kids Who Are Changing the World by Anne Jankeliowitch or about sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen’s activism in Bali for inspiration (Bali is officially plastic bag free thanks to their work!)
Homelessness or Poverty
- Set up a “Blessings Box” in your front yard to collect food and hygiene items
- Make a care package with travel-sized toiletries and food items to deliver to shelters
- Read about the tweens who created Gotta Have Sole after meeting a student experiencing homelessness at school
- Sort through and donate gently used clothes and toys
For more great suggestions, check out Sign Up Genius for child-friendly volunteering ideas, and Project Giving Kids for additional interests-based (and child-friendly) volunteer projects in your community.
6. Be a Good Neighbor
The world begins right outside our front doors. To help children make an impact on those closest to home, discuss what it means to be a “neighbor” (someone who lives nearby and that we have lots of opportunities to help).
Next, tell children to be on the lookout for ways they can do just that.
- Smiling and waving each time you see a neighbor
- Walking around the neighborhood picking up trash
- Offering to walk a neighbor’s dog
- Making cards or care packages for neighbors who’ve undergone surgery or had a new baby
- Roll garbage cans up the driveway for an elderly neighbor
Finally, set the example by modeling good neighborliness for your children: engage them as you make dinner for a local family fallen on hard times or order flowers for one who’s had a recent loss. Raising kind neighbors starts with being a good neighbor.
7. Stay Inspired
Many children are naturally motivated and easily inspired--it’s helping them stay that way that’s the trick. Happily, once started, the above strategies can create a habit of making positive change in the world.
“Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it. Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.”
-James Clear, entrepreneur and author of Atomic Habits
Other inspiring ideas include:
- Research activist children for proof you can make a difference at any age
- Follow young activists like Greta Thunberg (climate and environment), Malala Yousafzai (female education), and Zev Dickstein Shapiro (creator of teen mobilization app Turnout) on social media
- Read positive news articles (try Good News Network, Good News Today, or Sunny Skyz)
- Create a Big Life Board or “inspiration station” at home where children can keep a visual of their hopes and dreams
When time and resources are limited, simply continue your discussions on volunteerism and making a difference. Talk about family members and friends doing good deeds, and brainstorm ways you and your family can help in the future!