Some ways to help children care about the needs of others

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There's a small blue bowl of pennies on our kitchen counter, labeled ''For poor kids'' and filled by the children in our house. When the coins begin to overflow toward the toaster, one of the children will scoop the contents into a plastic bag and deposit it in the church mission bank or give it to a charity drive at school.

My youngest child is particularly enthralled with this procedure. The idea that her small sacrifices might somehow provide milk for hungry youngsters is enough to send her through the house at regular intervals, coaxing older siblings to part with leftover pennies and deciding how much of her allowance will land in the blue bowl. Already she is learning the concept of generosity, an ideal (we hope) that will develop throughout her life.

We parents want our children to be generous, to care about the needs of others and respond to those needs. Yet few of us know how to nurture this quality. Since we want it to spring naturally from a compassionate heart, we hesitate to push or insist that a child share or become involved in helpful works. Yet youngsters can sometimes seem self-centered, with a what's-in-it-for-me attitude. To encourage generosity, therefore, we need to (1) give them the opportunity, and (2) insist that they take part occasionally in something that will bring them no visible return.

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Providing the opportunity is easy; there are situations all around us where someone needs help. And children, even young children, can be enthusiastic about caring for others if they are given the chance.

As an example, some time ago I started a monthly food drive on my block. On the last Friday of every month I go house to house, picking up small donations of canned goods and baby food, which are then given to a local settlement house. The first time I made my rounds, the six-year-old across the street lent me his wagon in which to collect the groceries. By the second month he had volunteered to go along and ring doorbells. Now I feel like the Pied Piper, surrounded by children eager to carry bags. Mothers tell me that their children often suggest an item at the grocery store ''for our collection,'' and older children contribute cans out of their spending money. They've been given a chance to help someone, and they've responded.

Or consider the preteen school club that took on shoveling projects for the housebound elderly last winter. Those needing help contacted the school, and after classes a group of students would arrive to clear their walks. Parents soon reported that the shoveling project spilled over into individual neighborhoods. Their children began to seek out people on the block who needed help with snow removal or errands. Having been encouraged to care, and given the means to do it, the children kept the momentum going.

It's one thing to provide the opportunity, but what if a child refuses to take part? Sometimes, especially if a group of friends or the entire family is involved, it's worth it to ''push'' the child a bit. New experiences are always risky, and a youngster may be reluctant, not out of selfishness, but uncertainty. When my neighbor and her family began visiting an elderly nursing home patient, the neighbor's eight-year-old daughter initially balked, but would give no reason. The mother gently but firmly insisted that her daughter come along ''because we need you,'' and after the first few visits, the little girl relaxed. Eventually she confided that she had been afraid of nursing homes because of something she'd seen on TV, but now she was starting to like the visits.

Even if a child is refusing out of selfishness, a bit of prodding can change that. When my son was a Cub Scout, his pack often inserted material into church bulletins on Saturday afternoons. My son hated to give up an hour of sandlot baseball, but because I insisted, he went. When he came home, he always felt proud of the effort he'd made and the thanks he received. Now, as a young man, he regularly donates time to worthwhile projects.

All children need recognition, approval, and the feeling of being needed. When we help our children to reach out to others, we are not only fostering a generous spirit, but giving them the chance for some positive feedback as well. Seeing the face of his kindness reflected in another's can inspire a youngster, and encourage him to continue along a path of sharing and love.

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