What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.
“How’s my little buddy doing?” says Butcher Keith as my son giggles and hides behind my legs. Butcher Bob upon spotting my face takes off for the deli counter to produce a slice of freshly cut Colby cheese, or as we affectionately call it, “Bob cheese” for my son to munch on as we shop. We have been going to our local Mom and Pop owned grocery store since we moved to our neighborhood and certainly since our son was born. He has grown up knowing the names and personalities of each individual who helps us with our seafood or produce or checks us out when we are ready to leave. We also know the name and aspirations of our mailman who is a writer on the side. We know the owner and wait staff of the diner we frequent, the one that produces the world’s most delicious blueberry pancakes. Going that extra step to get to know people who are a regular part of your family’s life can extend your children’s sense of connectedness to their community.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa or another winter holiday, there are lots of opportunities for promoting social awareness, connection and contribution to your community. The farther your children are able to extend their connectedness beyond your home and immediate family, the safer and more resilient they will feel knowing that they have supports wherever they go in the surrounding area. Children have the ability to contribute to the community in simple ways if given the opportunity. Children who are raised with a sense of membership, responsibility and contribution to their community have practiced active citizenry. They have a regular and supportive context for exercising social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision making.
The people we admire most in the world are those who grew up knowing and understanding the value and importance of active citizenry. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. among other leaders for positive change started their social justice work in their own communities addressing very local problems and in the process, changed the world. To me, our core purpose for being is contribution. Giving your children small opportunities to exercise their ability to contribute will promote values that can be built upon as they grow into citizens and leaders in any community.
The following are some simple, everyday ways that you can allow your children to make community connections and feel like a significant contributor.
Start at home. How do your children contribute to your home environment and family life? Have you asked them what or how they would like to contribute? Their answer might surprise you. They observe you doing the work to keep up with running a household. Often, they know what is involved. They may be able to name ways they want to contribute. Otherwise, offer suggestions and support them the first few times they attempt to set the table for dinner or wash the dishes. They may not do the task in the exact way that you would hope but they are learning and practicing to be a significant contributor to your family life which is much more important.
Extend yourself to your neighbors. Do any of your holiday traditions include baking cookies for neighbors, caroling or shoveling a walkway? Why not include a new tradition that helps your family connect to your neighbors in some small way and involve your children in the process? You may feel you are too busy this season but maybe you could select one neighbor, perhaps an elderly person, to deliver cookies to with your children?
Get to know your community. If you are busy buying gifts online or in stores, try and stop in some of the stores close to your neighborhood and support the local businesses. My husband created a stocking last year for me of small gifts including gift cards only from businesses in our local neighborhood and what an incredible gift that was! Get to know the names of the tellers at the bank or the baristas at the coffee shop and show your children that you have invested yourself in your home community.
Contribute to your children’s school. Some schools are excellent at enlisting and putting to work parent volunteers and others are not. If you are lucky, it will be easy to offer to get involved. If your school does not involve parent volunteers regularly, then get in touch with the Parent Teacher Organization or an administrator and explore ways to contribute. Even if it’s cutting out shapes for teachers in the evening on occasion because you work full-time during the day, some contribution will model the value of involvement for your children. Schools also vary on creating service learning opportunities for students. Service learning – service opportunities linked directly to the academic curriculum – not only promotes student’s social and emotional skills, but also offers meaningful, connected learning opportunities and a constructive means for children to engage as contributors and not just passive recipients of curricula or community services. For more on service learning in schools, visit the Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
Create a family tradition of participating in one service event during the holiday season. Most nonprofit organizations with a mission to serve the community organize some service event over the holidays. From canned food drives to singing at nursing homes to wrapping toys for those who wouldn’t have them otherwise, there are numerous ways to get involved if you choose. Create a new family tradition and participate together. It may be the most valuable gift you can give your family. If you celebrate Christmas as I do, it can help your family focus on the true meaning of gift giving and being a part of a community at holiday time.
Learn about other traditions and holidays. Because there are so many rich holidays and traditions that occur during the month of December, be sure and begin to explore those beyond your own with your children. Expand your children’s awareness of global celebrations through the beauty of holiday celebrations. You might ask, “Why are evergreen trees used in celebrating Christmas? What is the story of the lights of Chanukkah? What is the meaning and purpose of the candle holder used in Kwanzaa? What is the winter solstice?” Use the internet to do some exploration and learn. Or check out some books from the local library on other traditions.
Involve children in thinking about and creating gifts for family and friends. Guiding your children to think about the preferences and hobbies of valued individuals in your life promotes empathy and perspective-taking skills. Allow your children to consider what they might think Dad would most like as a holiday gift. Support them in making and buying gifts from ideas they generate to give them the experience and joy of giving. For more, read “The Joy of Giving.”
Use the language of purpose and contribution. Regardless of belief system or tradition, each person is fueled by a sense of purpose and feelings of belonging and contribution. But often with children this month most conversations seem to be about “getting.” With Christmas it feels like a frenzy in those last few weeks prior to the holiday of anticipation over the toys to come. You can help change that energy by talking about meaning, purpose and contribution. The winter holidays share similar meanings focusing on light in the darkness and a focus on kindness, service and giving. Share the underlying values behind your traditions. Make the ideas of contribution and giving a part of your conversations all season long.
Initiate conversations with elders about family stories and ancestory. While you are visiting with family over the holidays, initiate conversations with elders in the family to learn more about your family history and traditions of the past. In our family, my Mom has a story for every ornament on the tree and, often, they relate to family trips, history and members that have passed on. Allow people to share stories from the past and bring your children in to listen to expand their thinking and help them learn about and gain empathy and respect for a different generation.
Plan for mind-expanding travel. As you begin to make plans for the new year, consider making a priority out of travel with your children to a place that might give them an experience of another culture. You don’t have to break the bank to do it either. In Ohio, for example, we have the chance to visit Amish Country to see how people live who choose to be “off the grid.” Think about travel experiences for your family that will not only allow for a fun get-away but also help expand your experiences of different people, cultures and traditions. Check out the great blog, Small Hands, Big World for more ideas on “teachable travel.”
You have the opportunity to infuse meaning into your holiday season even if it’s busy one. Include an emphasis on connecting with and understanding those around you in ever greater circles from immediate family to extended family to neighbors to community to broader communities and look for ways to model and involve your children in contribution to those ever expanding circles. You may just prepare your child for changing the world.