As the camp directors of Swift Nature Camp, every day, we evaluate to make sure that we are teaching the children in our care more than just skills like swimming, making pottery at arts and crafts, how to steer a canoe or how to identify edible plants in the woods. These are all summer camp activities in Wi, but we want to make sure that we are teaching them and encouraging them to develop the lifelong skills and behaviors they will need to be successful in life - things like showing compassion, being responsible, and building good relationships. And life as a parent is the same - every day is about helping your children to learn how to fry an egg for breakfast, math and reading at school and perhaps helping to take care of a family pet or younger sibling as well as developing proficiency in communicating with others, self motivation, and independence.
One of the skills that we try to emphasize with children at our Wisc Summer Camp is generosity and learning to find happiness in giving to others. One great thing about these skills is that research tells us that children as young as toddlers have an intrinsic drive to share and help others. In fact, one study found that children prefer or enjoy equally the opportunity to share a treat with others as much as having one for themselves. That isn’t a feeling that goes away in adulthood either - I know that I am super excited about seeing my child’s reaction to a few of the gifts of the holiday season.
And speaking of the season, this time of year is a great time to try to do a little extra to develop those intrinsic qualities of giving and generosity in your children. Many organizations have drives for donated goods (winter wear, food, toys, gift cards), and along with that, they often have needs for extra volunteers to sort, organize and distribute those goods. Organizations that aren’t looking for hard goods are often participating in end of the year funding pitches to round out their financial donations. Students have a bit more free time during their winter breaks, and if you have any extra holiday vacation from work or can find some spare time around the house, you may be able to find the perfect opportunity to fit in a few volunteer hours with your children.
Since this season seems so perfectly suited to teaching giving, we’d like to share a few science and research based strategies for building your children’s love of giving and altruistic nature:
To start, as always, be a role model, but also explain why you are doing what you are doing. Kids are more likely to reflect behavior that they see from one or both parents consistently . But we also know that with giving, kids are even more likely to be generous themselves if their parents not only model giving behavoir, but also explain why they are doing so. If you make a donation to a charitable organization, talk to your children about why. If you are giving time by volunteering, then explain to your kids what you are doing and how and who it helps.
Next, make sure that you are tapping into your children’s empathy - help them to understand the need for giving and generosity. Encourage your children to consider the background and history of people who are in need of some type of assistance. If there are opportunities for your children to directly interact with people in need, that can help them to solidify the connection and activate their drive help others. Even after doing something like collecting donations for the homeless, the needs of that group of people can be a pretty abstract concept to understand. If children are given the opportunity to visit a homeless shelter or similar organization and share donations, it helps them to build understanding of the needs of others.
Thirdly, help them to see the difference that they are making in the world by being generous. For younger kids, this may mean participating in things like donation drives for goods - it is easier for children to make a connection when picking out a few things at the grocery store or toy store to donate then that abstract concept of giving monetary donations. For children that are older, a good way is to involve them in donating time when they can directly see the results of their work - something like participating in a clean up of a public area or serving food at a soup kitchen.
Continuing on, play to their strengths and make giving a way that they can share their personal strengths and interests. Studies show us that when children participate in volunteer or donation efforts that have a special significance to them they are more likely to continue being generous to those types of causes. If your child loves nature, see if you can find a place where they can volunteer to help clean up at a wildlife rehabilitation center or help with removal of invasive plants in natural area. If your child is artistic or crafty, perhaps you can encourage them to be a part of making holiday cards or knitting or crocheting lap blankets for residents of an elder care community. If their love is sports, they could find a place to donate sporting goods or try to teach younger children their skills through a sports clinic.
Finally, make sure that you are giving them choice. Though mandatory community service programs are not uncommon throughout different areas of the country, researched is mixed on whether or not they actually encourage children and teens to continue giving beyond what they are required to do. Help them to see the different ways in their area that they could help out - donating time, money, goods or skills to various organizations. If you give your child an allowance, you may want to have them set aside a certain amount for donating, but let them then choose how and where to donate those funds.
Of course, we want to make sure that we are nurturing these skills in our young people year round. But hopefully, with these suggestions, you can use the end of the year holiday season as a jump start for a 2017 of building giving and generosity with your children. So next summer be sur eto have your child join us at this amazing Wisconsin Summer Camp