By Allison Wedell Schumacher
If I could, I would raise my daughter in a world without hatred, bigotry, or cruelty. A world where poverty doesn’t exist and all people are equal and respected regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or religion. A world that isn’t polluted or overcrowded, where animal species aren’t going extinct by the dozen and the polar ice caps aren’t shrinking by the day.
But I can’t. I don’t live in that world, and I certainly can’t raise her there. And she knows it.
So instead I work to make the world we have a better place—and she works with me. Gone are the days of “When I grow up, I’m going to fix . . .” I see her generation fixing things right now. She’s a member of the gay-straight alliance at her middle school. I need hardly tell you there wasn’t such a thing when I was in sixth grade. But she has already seen injustices toward the LGBTQ community, and instead of depending on adults to correct injustice, she and her friends are doing it themselves.
A friend recently asked me how I ignited such a sense of purpose in my daughter. My answer was a frank and rather surprised “I didn’t.” That drive, that sense of social justice, that’s all her. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it came down to three things: empathy, modeling, and interest.
A loose definition of empathy is feeling or understanding how someone else is feeling. Walking a mile in their shoes, as it were. That involves observation skills: If your child doesn’t notice that a friend is sad, he can’t start thinking about why that friend might be sad and what he can do to help.
We moved to Minnesota when my daughter was eight. She was, unfortunately, no stranger to the sight of homeless people, but to see them out in Minnesota’s winters distressed her very much. She could vividly imagine what it might be like to be without adequate food or shelter during those frigid days and nights. Which was how we ended up putting together “goody bags” with socks, tampons, food, water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and toilet paper. Every time we would see someone with a cardboard sign on an interstate overpass, my daughter would insist on stopping, and she took great pride in handing over the goody bag herself.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never told my daughter that she has a responsibility as a global citizen to leave the world a better place than she found it. But she’s a smart kid. Just as she picked up on the less-than-savory words her dad and I let slip when she was learning to talk (whoops!), she sees the adults around her—parents, teachers, extended family, friends—doing things to make the world a better place. And because she sees that behavior modeled for her, she wants to do it too.
People’s sense of purpose tends to be tightly tied to their interests. You might participate in an AIDS walk because you know someone who is HIV positive; perhaps you volunteer with a wetlands cleanup group because you grew up near one and remember how beautiful it was. So if you’re looking to ignite a sense of purpose in children, a good way to do it is to find a charity or cause that aligns with something they’re already passionate about.
My friend Jenny and her husband Rick did this with both their kids when they were little. Vaughan and Rheya both loved animals, so for their birthday parties, Jenny would ask the guests to bring animal shelter donations instead of gifts. After the traditional cake and games, the party would migrate to the local animal shelter so that the birthday child could present their donations—blankets and food, leashes and toys. Vaughan and Rheya got to see the direct result of their generosity, and it shows in the photos Jenny took of them handing over their treasure trove to the grateful shelter volunteers—their pride makes them look about ten feet tall.
So if you really want to see your child’s passion have an impact on the world, remember those three things: empathy, modeling, and interest. Next thing you know, your little social activist will be rolling up his sleeves, working alongside you to make the world a better place.
Allison Amy Wedell is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.