Is there any volunteer work my 3-year-old son can do?

Advice on how to make the world better.
April 15 2009 6:58 AM

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Is there any volunteer work my 3-year-old son can do?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

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.

Patty:

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.

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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!

Sandy:

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.

I don't mean to be discouraging. There are certainly service activities that a 3-year-old can participate in. Luckily, this is an area where there is a lot of interest from parents and a booming Internet presence. Check out Compassionate Kids, FamilyCares, and this Cookie article to give you ideas about engaging in family volunteerism. Just to get you started, here are a few ideas that may be appropriate for kids his age:

  1. Three is often too young to start working at a food bank, but you may be able to volunteer for a "Meals on Wheels" delivery service and bring him along.
  2. "Adopt" a family during the holidays and have him help you pick out presents, wrap them, and decorate the packaging. This will provide a good opportunity to explain about families and kids who are less fortunate.
  3. Find out if your local nursing homes have "Toddler Days."
  4. Make birthday cards for senior citizens.
  5. Have him decorate two old spaghetti sauce jars and start collecting change in them. One will be his "savings," and one will be for charity. Once he's hit a certain amount, take the change to your local Coinstar and let him choose which charity to donate to.
  6. April 22 is Earth Day, and nearly every city has volunteer events to celebrate. "Cleanup" events can be a great way to get started volunteering. It's a one-time commitment and can give you a sense of how your child will be in a volunteer setting.

Remember that you know your son best and a mother's intuition is seldom wrong. (But don't tell my mom that!) Always contact an organization before making a commitment and ask whether the work would be appropriate for a 3-year-old. If it doesn't sound like it will be safe or beneficial for your son and/or the organization, choose something else. As my mom said, there are lots of ways to instill these values.

If you decide that you need to find your own volunteer activity, consider the advice we gave Casey about virtual volunteering. As your son gets older, there will be more opportunities for you to engage in work together, but until then, this may help ensure that your own itch to serve is scratched, too.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.