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Hi, Patty and Sandy,
I've had very little free time for anything since my son was born, let alone for volunteering. Now that he's a toddler (3 years old), I would really like to volunteer with him. I think now is the time to build the foundation by showing him the importance of giving and that others are not as fortunate as he is. However, I am hesitant about what exactly to do with him. What would you recommend for us?
Molly, Washington, D.C.
Molly, I agree that instilling the values of caring for others and community service in your child at an early age is an important part of parenting. But 3 years old is still quite young. Volunteering, from the word voluntary, is based on free will, and your son's commitment to service will be underscored if you find ways to have his service spring from his own values and observations of need. Of course you have a role in forming those values, but I recommend that you ask yourself exactly what values you are trying to teach (compassion? tolerance? generosity?) and start by deploying the tools you have close at hand.
Certainly the first and possibly most important tool is your own example, because no matter how much giving or weekly volunteering we do, the biggest imprint on our child's value system will be the example we provide every day in the most ordinary transactions. If I opine about "honesty" but my child hears me lying to Grandma about our weekend plans, which lesson will stick? If I drop clothes at the Goodwill box but head to the mall to replace them with higher-priced items, my lesson in sharing will be muted.
But certainly 3-year-olds are ready learners, so it is a great time to add activities to the lessons learned from daily observation.
So pick a few values—we'll say compassion, generosity, and shared responsibility—and look for ways to actively discuss and practice those with your child. If you make a game of it, he may surprise you by finding people or needs that you didn't even "see": a child at preschool who seems lonely and would value a play date, a neighbor who would like a visit, an area of the park that needs picking up. The value of allowing your child to instigate the idea and independently perform these value-to-action opportunities is huge.
So go ahead and find a volunteer activity to do together. Find something that will be fun and get you both into different settings and groups, but make the primary focus of your efforts building values into action with a daily activity that your son does on his own. That way volunteering will be just one part of his tool kit!
As someone who has organized volunteer programs before, my first reaction is that it may be prohibitively difficult for organizations to allow a mother and 3-year-old to volunteer.