02/04/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

When Is It the Right Time to Introduce Service to Your Child?

We live in a time that causes us to be more protective than ever when it comes to our young children. We want them to have the joy of being children. Because of this, it is vital to the growth of our children that we allow them to understand the meaning of giving to others.

When I began teaching, the custom of my school was to make sandwiches each week that were delivered to the homeless people in our community. They also had clothing and toy drives that allowed them to bring things to school to put into cardboard boxes. They knew that they were doing something good, but they never knew where the sandwiches went, nor did they understand the importance of giving to those who were less fortunate. I recall the old Chinese proverb that says "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

It quickly became apparent to me that this was an area that I needed to explore. How could I make my kindergarteners understand that there were other people whom they might meet that could reciprocally offer something more? I began taking my kindergarteners to a Head Start center, where that conversation began. The children instinctively knew how to play together and to share a snack together, and when it came time to illustrate books, that too seemed easy enough. At Halloween, we discovered that most of the children did not have costumes, so we decided on a costume drive. They saw the delight as the children chose their favorite ones!

When I moved to second grade, we connected with a senior center that you will probably be hearing more about as I write my blogs. We visited them about once every month. We sang songs to them, did art activities and ate lunch with them as we grew to make new friendships. The children found that they had a lot in common with the seniors as they shared commonly celebrated holidays, their favorite games and interesting details of their lives together. At the end of the year, the children learned to take some notes, and they wrote biographies about the seniors. The biographies were read at a school assembly in front of the honored seniors. A copy of their books was donated to the local public library, and we celebrated with cookies and juice at a class party before saying goodbye.

It appears that I have come full circle now. My 5-year-old grandson decided that it would be a good idea to ask his coach at gymnastics camp if it would be OK to put a box out that he decorated to collect toiletries that could be donated to families in need. The idea caught on quickly, and now his preschool also has a box ready that he has decorated for them for the same use. At the ripe age of 3, this same little boy was ringing a bell on a sidewalk with his daddy to raise money for the Salvation Army. His job was to give a candy cane to everyone who was nice enough to come by. The important part to him, though, was that his hard work out there was going to help others that had less than he. Before the holidays, my daughter helped him to gather some of his older toys, and the two of them delivered the toys to children who were less fortunate; however, the most moving part for him was to see how much joy these toys brought to the faces around him.

I think we need to take the time to do much more explaining to our children about why we do things for others. That is what plants the early seeds of service. Please understand that I know you already have internalized the concepts of good modeling for your children. I have yet to meet a parent that does not believe that he or she is doing the very best possible job in this regard; however, many have asked me when is the best time to introduce service to your child? The answer is this: Introduce service to your child when you are prepared to give age-appropriate information that your child will understand. Then model the behavior with your child. You will be amazed at how quickly little ones love to give back!