“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” – HELEN KELLER
The first time I realized the power of involving kids in social justice projects was when one of my sons was just four. The two of us had gone to see the movie “The Bear,” and because it was rated as family oriented, I wasn’t prepared for the scene in which a bear is brutally killed. Well, neither was my four-year-old: Zach was devastated, and he sobbed all the way home. At some point during our drive, he exclaimed adamantly that the president of the United States should make a rule against killing bears. Probably to appease him more than anything else, I suggested that he write the president a letter, and as soon as we drove into our driveway, Zach turned into an animal rights activist. He ran inside; grabbed an envelope, paper, and pencil; and asked me to write down his words. Within five minutes, he’d written a letter to the president pleading with him to write a law stopping the “bear killers.” He then sealed and stamped the envelope and confidently put it in the mailbox. And I figured “that was that.”
What I never expected was a response: over the next weeks Zach received dozens of letters from various government officials regarding animal rights, hunting laws, and even a few about bears. And the satisfaction on Zach’s face each time he opened a letter was priceless.
“See, Mom,” he’d tell me, “they know it’s wrong, and they’re going to do something. I helped the bears.”
That day my four-year-old taught me just how important it is to help kids know that their actions can make a difference. I also learned a very important lesson: it’s never too early to start. Or too late.
Children learn qualities such as empathy, fairness, justice, charity, and compassion not through lectures or textbook readings but by witnessing or experiencing those virtues. We can ignite our children’s capacity for goodness by finding opportunities for them to do good and recognize they can make a difference in their world. ~ Michele Borba, Building Moral Intelligence: Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing
As is true in the case in most families, each of my children has different interests, skills, and strengths. To have had all of them involved in the same service project wouldn’t have been wise. Instead, my husband and I tried to encourage each child to find a project that matched his concerns and talents. My politically oriented son set up campaign headquarters at his high school for his chosen presidential candidate; my older son who is great with younger kids taught Bible school to five-year-olds; and my eleventh grader volunteered weekly at the fire department and completed his civil defense training so he can help out in a community emergency. Because our kids chose projects that supported their passions as well as their strengths, they not only enjoyed volunteering but were committed to their causes. And best yet, they have continued to be concerned about their world and want to make a difference.
Often the most difficult part of getting your child to get involved in a social justice project is knowing where to begin. Here are a few ideas passed on from other parents on how to start kids doing projects of their choice.
1. Choose a project based on your child’s interests and talents
The first step is to help your child choose something that he is good at and enjoys doing. Here are a few ideas for different types of learners and matching them with service learning and social justice projects based on Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence:
1. Linguistic learners like to read, write, and tell stories. They learn by hearing and seeing words, know unusual amounts of information, have advanced vocabularies, memorize facts verbatim. Offer to read or write letters for young kids, the elderly, or people with disabilities.Start a letter-writing campaign about an issue that concerns you.Become a pen pal with an orphan overseas or a patient at a nearby hospital.Donate used books to a library, homeless shelter, or classroom.
2. Bodily/kinesthetic learners handle their bodies with ease and poise for their age, are adept at using their body for sports or artistic expression, and are skilled in fine motor tasks.Help coach younger children in dancing, gymnastics, a favorite sport, or acting.Volunteer for the Special Olympics or help students with disabilities at a local school.Make or repair dolls and other toys for needy or sick kids.Mend clothes or sew blankets for a shelter.
3. Intrapersonal learners have strong self-understanding, are original, enjoy working alone to pursue their own interests and goals, and have a strong sense of right and wrong.“Adopt” someone who could use a friend, such as an elderly person; offer to call periodically. Teach a special hobby—magic, juggling, art, drumming, calligraphy—to needy kids.Ask permission to start a food drive at your parents’ workplace or in your community.
4. Interpersonal learners understand people, lead and organize others, have lots of friends, are looked to by others to make decisions and mediate conflicts, and enjoy joining groups.Start a club and make after-school snacks for homeless kids or soup for a shelter.Put together a walk-a-thon or read-a-thon and donate the proceeds to a local charity.Go door-to-door with a parent and friends collecting warm clothes to give to the homeless.
5. Musical learners appreciate rhythm, pitch, and melody, and they respond to music. They remember melodies, keep time, may play instruments, and like to sing and hum tunes.Offer to play an instrument at nursing homes and homeless shelters.Organize sing alongs at a shelter or senior citizen center during the holidays.Tutor needy younger kids in how to play an instrument.
6. Logical/mathematical learners understand numbers, patterns, and relationships, and they enjoy science and math. They categorize, ask questions, do experiments, and figure things out.Tutor math, science, or computers to younger children.Play chess, checkers, or other thinking games with kids at a shelter or hospital.Make computer flyers asking for specific donations to a shelter; post them in the community.
7. Spatial learners like to draw, design and create things, and imagine things and daydream. They remember what they see, read maps and charts, and work well with colors and pictures.Beautify any shelter: paint it or hang up hand-painted pictures.Make homemade holiday greeting cards and deliver them to a hospital.Do a favorite craft project with the elderly.
8. Naturalists like the out-of-doors, are curious, and classify the features of the environment.Pick a flower bouquet from the garden, tie it with a ribbon, and deliver it to a sick friend.Plant vegetables and donate the harvest to a soup kitchen or shelter.Help children at a shelter plant their own garden. Clean up a park, school ground, or property to make it safe and beautiful.
Tune into problems that concern your child and start by looking around your neighborhood. For example: property that needs cleaning up, a park where kids no longer feel safe playing, homeless people living on the streets, shelters that need sprucing up, or elderly people who are lonely. Look for other service projects in the yellow pages under “Social Service Organizations.” Keep track of global issues that interest your child, such as Internet hate sites, movie violence, child abuse, drugs, gender inequality, oppression, poverty, human rights, slavery, prison reform or racial injustice. Help your child analyze the good and bad points of each possibility and then choose the one problem he wants to work on most.
2. Research the topic
Next, help your child find out as much information as she can about the problem. The library is always a good place to start: magazines, newspapers, and the Internet are good sources of information. Ask teachers, kids, neighbors, relatives, coaches, scout leaders, and city officials and write to state officials and government groups. Call organizations familiar with the topic for more ideas. A word of caution: don’t be discouraged if the organization is not receptive to actual kid involvement and only encourages your child to collect money and donate possessions. I found that true with all too many. Stress to your child that she doesn’t need an organization to make a difference. Any small action is a start.
3. Think of all possible solutions
The next step is to help him brainstorm all the possible ways he could help remedy an unfair situation. Write down all ideas and then help him select the few that he feels most comfortable with, and enthusiastic about and that are most realistic.
Suppose your child is concerned about the homeless living in the park. He can brainstorm these type of solutions: build a shelter, get a hotel to house them, put beds in the park, give out blankets, raise money for cots. Now have him choose the ideas he feels are most manageable and that he wants to commit to doing. After a lengthy discussion, he might realize that getting a hotel isn’t so realistic (right away, anyway), and might choose instead to canvass his neighbor and school for blankets and to advertise in the newspaper. Go with your child’s lead! He’ll be more passionate about the cause and implementing the ideas because they are his–not yours.
4. Enlist others in the cause
Many kids enjoy volunteering with others: a friend, your family, Grandma-the more the merrier-so ask your child if she would like to do her project with someone and, if so, find other people who agree with her cause.
Some kids like to form clubs, which can include neighborhood kids, classmates, scout or church members, or just friends. The more people in the group, the more energy they have to make a difference.
5. Plan for success
The more your child thinks through his plan, the greater the likelihood he will succeed. So help him organize for success by asking him what resources and people he will need for his cause. For instance, if your child has chosen to volunteer, you might post a large monthly calendar for him to jot down volunteer days and times; a young child can draw a happy face or other symbols. If your child is starting a letter campaign for new legislation, ask, “What do you need to start your campaign?”
Then help him list such items as stamps, addresses of officials, computer, printer ink, envelopes, and stationery. If he needs to raise money, encourage him to that he might make flyers to advertise his cause, and suggest places to post them and people to contact. If he needs petitions signed, help him think of good places for signups and come up with ideas about where to borrow folding tables and clipboards. Emphasize that he should always tell you his plans and never go anywhere unfamiliar without an adult.
6. Implement the solutions and evaluate progress
Now encourage your child to carry out her plans. Often getting started is the hardest part for kids, so you might ask, “What is the first thing you need to get started?” Support her efforts so that she carries out her plans. Stress that the best-laid plans never go smoothly, so help your child evaluate her progress and change any areas that need correcting.
7. Celebrate efforts..big or small
Whether your child volunteers once a year or once a week, writes one letter or a thousand, support his efforts and affirm that she’s helping to make the world a better place.
Even better, join with his efforts. Make social justice a family affair!