“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

So said, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who has become the face of the service movement in this country. Every year on the day of remembrance named for him, we get an extra day off from work to do as we please. This year, that day is Monday, January 21st. Usually, I sleep in on this Monday or go away for the long weekend. Some people take the time to participate in the MLK Day of Service. Whatever we do on this one day of the year, many parents, teachers and caregivers are left with this question: How do we teach our kids about having compassion, helping others and volunteerism? Perhaps this is a persistent and urgent question as well.

Here are some thoughts:

Be part of a service-oriented group

I got my “helping” feet wet when I was pretty young. Growing up in a church community gives plenty of opportunities for helping others. There was talk of giving time and money to people and causes in need. I participated in sponsored walks, food pantry stocking and visiting the elderly.

Religious organizations are not the only places to foster communities of volunteerism, but they are great resources for finding volunteer opportunities. If you take part in a play group or parent group, you might consider introducing the idea of a volunteer outing for everyone. Helping to make giving back a normal part of your child’s life will hopefully create lifelong habits for them. And while they may not understand what it means to be in someone else’s shoes when they’re young, their habits might encourage them to consider compassion as they age.

Focus on helping in small ways

If you’re anything like me (which is to say living in America & human), then you might be thinking, “It’s not that I don’t want to volunteer, but who has the time?” And to you I say, absolutely true. Sometimes we just don’t have the time, energy or motivation to plan a day to give back (I’ve gone for years at a clip without formally giving of my talents or time). But this doesn’t preclude helping in other ways.

You and your kids can collect cans of food to give to food banks. You can help a neighbor rake their front lawn. You can feed a friend’s cat while they’re away. There are plenty of ways to help out if we just look for them. It might mean getting cozy with some people in our communities, but that isn’t always a bad thing, is it?

On an even smaller level, helping most easily happens in the home. Sometimes a brother will put away his sister’s toys (not impossible…). Helping! You can do a job that belongs to your daughter. Helping! Your son can set the table without being asked. Helping! Point out these instances as the “helping” that they are so that the idea of helping will be a welcome one.

Expose kids to different people and communities

If you’ve ever passed by someone asking for money while you were with your kids, then you may have had a conversation about homelessness or need. Sometimes kids find this a little frightening, but it’s generally a good idea for them to know that not everyone in the world has a bed to sleep in and enough food to eat. Volunteering in a setting different from the one you live in will help kids begin to see the world as a diverse place. Knowing about these differences is not going to make your kids automatically grateful for all of the things that they have. But it might help them to consider other people and their needs. It’s a lesson that many of us have trouble learning: that people are just people. We may look different or talk different or live differently, but we’re still all people. Kids seem to know this from the beginning and unlearn it as they grow. Maybe we can help them hold on to that idea for a little bit longer.

As we remember Dr. King and his message of giving back, let’s look for opportunities to turn that remembrance into action.

If you’re looking for ways to give back, here are some resources for you:

  • All For Good– it’s like google for volunteering!
  • Volunteer Match– they even have a search for opportunities that are “suitable for kids”
  • MLK Day of Service– if you’re looking for a one-shot deal for January 21, 2013

How do you and your family give back? Let us know how you teach volunteerism!