Tami Silverman: Teach kids benefits of kindness, gratitude

After months of self-care, protection and distancing, and with Thanksgiving and the winter holidays just around the corner, now is the perfect time to remind our children of the benefits of connecting with others through acts of kindness and giving. Like so many skills we teach our children, compassion and kindness take practice. Through their committed practice, they also can bring our children great rewards, such as increased confidence, improved collaboration and social networking skills, and a greater sense of community.

Prosocial behaviors are grounded in human nature. Even toddlers show an inclination to care and help others in need. Yet as children age, their focus can be drawn toward competition and individualism. Teaching children the value of civic engagement and volunteerism often starts at home. Parents can help children as young as 3 years old learn the behaviors and attitudes associated with community service — the ideas of caring and sharing. These do not need to be complex interactions: activities like donating food or outgrown clothing increase the ability of children under 10 to understand the experiences and needs of others.

Elementary students often start basic giving and service projects through faith-based and afterschool programs, such as the Scouts. We should talk to middle school children about their place in their community, including direct paths for impact. By high school, students have the capacity to understand complex problems, including ways they can contribute to solutions.

Above all, experts advise that young people have a voice in and ownership of their commitment.

November is National Philanthropy Month. Now is the perfect time to engage our children in community service. Not only will recipients of the service or donation benefit, but participation in acts of kindness and civic engagement also offers clear benefits to kids.

Research shows that teaching and modeling the social competencies of kindness and compassion produces significant benefits for children and youth, including:

  • Increased levels of happiness, caring and emotional well-being. Acts of kindness help children form connections that are positively associated with increased happiness.
  • A greater sense of belonging and improved self-esteem. The rush of endorphins related to helping others creates a sense of lasting pride, optimism, and self-worth.
  • Improved health and less stress. Service among teens is linked to lower rates of drug use and pregnancy. Altruism often releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress levels.
  • Increased feelings of gratitude. Helping others provides perspective, prompting young people to appreciate the bright spots of their own circumstances.
  • Better concentration. Kindness is connected with increased positivity and serotonin levels. This combination often results in better sleep, memory, learning, attention spans, and willingness to learn.

Overall, children and youth involved in community service grow into adults who typically have a stronger work ethic, continue to volunteer, and have higher voting rates.

Community-oriented opportunities for kids continue to be available, through places like schools and youth programs. Often, you can identify such commitments by an organization’s mission and vision statements, where the group may express its support for and encouragement of prosocial behaviors like student citizenship, tolerance, and community engagement.

Youth-serving organizations and schools can spark kids’ interest by showing young people how to translate compassion into acts of kindness and service. Experts suggest we actively talk to children about both community needs, and the impact nonprofits have within their community and state. Many community organizations offer family volunteer options, allowing parents and children to serve side-by-side.

Whether a youth worker, educator, coach, parent, or family member, we all serve as crucial role models for kids on the topic of giving back. We all can embody the spirit of Hoosier hospitality by teaching our children to take care of our neighbors, our communities, and our country.