Whitney Koehn is only 13 years old, but she already has touched many lives in her hometown of Elmwood, Neb. (pop. 634). “I do a lot of volunteer activities with my 4-H club, my church and the student council at my school,” she says.
During the last few years, she helped create centerpieces for a senior center, deliver home-baked goods to the elderly, clean up a cemetery before Memorial Day, and run a petting zoo for the town’s 125th anniversary celebration, among other activities. “I think it’s awesome to help other people,” she says.
For inspiration, Whitney needs look no farther than her parents. Her mom, Karey, 41, wears many volunteer hats, including 4-H leader, school parent association president, parks committee member and Sunday school teacher. Her dad, Mike, 42, volunteers as a youth sports coach in baseball, softball and basketball. And her younger brothers—Spencer, 10, and Harrison, 5—show signs of being bitten by the volunteering bug as well. “I don’t know that I ever said, ‘Kids, I expect you to give back,” Karey says. “It’s just what we do in this family.”
When it comes to instilling a spirit of giving, the Koehns seem to be on the right track. “It’s never too early to start surrounding children with the core values of generosity, compassion and empathy,” says Candace Lindemann, an educational consultant in Miller Place, N.Y. (pop. 12,339), and founder of a philanthropic website. “Show them how to be a giving person by example. Then allow them to participate as much as they can in age-appropriate ways.”
Three dos for raising do-gooders
Raising children who volunteer is good for the community. It also benefits the kids themselves. “I think it helps prevent them from becoming spoiled or feeling entitled, because you’re encouraging them to think about all the things they have that maybe some people don’t have,” Lindemann says. “It’s also empowering and builds self-esteem. You’re telling them, ‘It doesn’t matter how young or small you are. If you want to help, you can make a difference.’”
Here are three suggestions for raising charitable kids:
• Listen to their ideas about what to do. “When a child comes up with an idea that’s too big or impractical, it’s tempting to say, ‘You’ll never be able to do it,’” Lindemann says. Rather than dismissing the idea, she suggests talking about ways to break it down into smaller, more doable steps. For example, your family might not be able to adopt every stray puppy in town, but you can take a bag of dog food to the local animal shelter.
• Choose a cause they can relate to. Young children relate best to doing something hands-on, such as planting flowers or baking cookies, or giving away something tangible, such as homemade crafts or outgrown clothes. “Most children don’t really get the concept of raising money until around age 10,” Lindemann says. And even then, she notes, fundraising is more relatable if the money goes to the local community or other children.
• Tap into their talents and interests. Lindemann says that while her family was Christmas caroling at a retirement home in 2009, her daughter Lilah, now 6, launched into an impromptu performance of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. “Everybody there loved it!” Lindemann says. “And Lilah learned that she had the power to make other people smile.”