Helping kids to think beyond themselves is one of the pleasures and responsibilities of being a parent or caregiver. Coming up on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers an array of opportunities for families to be of service in our own communities or beyond. It’s a chance to join others in honoring the civil rights leader and the idea that it takes a village of people coming together to create positive change.
Each year on the third Monday in January, many cities and towns offer MLK Day of Service projects. You can take part in preparing or serving food, helping with shoreline cleanup or trail restoration, making care packages for those serving in the military, and much more. Many projects will also open your eyes to ways to stay involved and become a more active volunteer.
Talking to kids about the holiday offers an opening for perspective taking (imagining oneself in another person’s shoes) as well as building empathy. What would it be like to live where another person lives and experience his or her lifestyle? Take the opportunity to talk with your child about what another person might be feeling and why, and how your child might respond to the other person’s situation. For some kids, it’s a significant psychological and cognitive step to become aware of people and cultures different from one’s immediate world, even if those people are just a few miles away.
I’ve been trying to create more opportunities to broaden my own boys’ view of the world and how other people live. On a recent trip to Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, we went deep into the villages outside of Siem Reap to get an idea of how the people live with limited resources. We visited a few schools, learned how they are building wells to get clean water, and restoring buildings and roofs at the schools to keep the children dry when it rains. It was amazing to see how people unite to help each other and how they live on the land with so few amenities. Although there was a language barrier, my boys had no trouble playing football (soccer-see photo) with the other children and even and taught them a few of their favorite card games. We ate lunch with a local family and felt welcomed in their village. It was great to expose my children to a completely different lifestyle from anything they’d seen before. It was truly a life-changing experience that was the highlight of our trip. We plan to stay involved, and to travel back and explore other areas that might provide a similar experience.
Over the years, my family has tried to volunteer and partner with others to sponsor families in need or get involved in our local community in other ways. Although the intention is always there, some years we were not as successful as we wanted to be. This past year we became a part of an organization called Boys Team Charity where there are organized events for children and families to take part in. This has made it much easier to jump in by doing tasks like sorting food at food banks, helping at events for those with special needs, furnishing new homes for those who were previously homeless, etc. I have also heard about similar organizations doing good work, such as Lion Heart and a local (SF Bay Area) group for younger children children called Mindful Littles.
In addition to volunteering, parents can serve as role models for helping others by embracing teachable moments in our everyday personal lives. Offering to hold the door open or carry groceries for an elderly person shows your child that you are thinking of others and their needs. With some extra time and effort, we can make extra food for dinner and bring a meal for to those who are ill, or we can reach out by phone or Skype when visits aren’t possible. All of these real-life situations and experiences help to build social and emotional skills while also teaching our kids to be involved and caring citizens.