06/26/2015 05:28 EDT | Updated 06/26/2016 05:59 EDT

How Kids Can Make a Difference

Kristy-Anne Swart

Both of my sons have raised funds for several excellent organizations. As Beavers and Cubs, they've peddled apples outside the grocery store on Apple Day, to collect coins for Scouts Canada. Both sold magazines to friends and relatives, to help buy new computers for their school. On at least one birthday, I made sure that each child requested charitable donations instead of the usual Hot Wheels and Star Wars Lego.

There was just one downside to all of these worthwhile endeavours: they were all someone else's ideas. While my kids were critical in helping raise funds, they had never actually felt moved to help. The adults around them did the moving.

Study after study indicates that parents, schools and community members all have a role to play in developing caring, ethical children. But how do we do that in a way that's less about layering on the duty and obligation? How do we nurture a child's own instincts about what's needed in the world, and help them find their own unique way to give?

Tapping into their own ideas

I love the example of four-year-old Cosette Swart in Calgary. When she was just three, Cosette learned that many people around the world die because they don't have enough to eat. This bothered Cosette so much that she declared to her parents that she wanted to do something.

"I want to help feed the poor people," were her words.


Photo courtesy of Kristy-Anne Swart

Her parents -- and I love this -- brainstormed with Cosette about how she, personally and lovingly, might be able to help feed hungry people. One idea that emerged was to sell some of the paintings that Cosette loved to create. Cosette's original goal was to buy a cow for a needy family, so their children could have milk to drink.

From this seed grew a small community of family and friends, who believed in what Cosette was trying to do. People began buying her paintings. The coins dropping into Cosette's jar transformed into larger and larger sums. From May to August of last year, she raised nearly $2000 to buy a cow, a sheep and an alpaca through the World Vision Gift Catalogue. Doing something she loved, Cosette also purchased a Mongolian Ger, a traditional one-room dwelling to protect a family from the severe winters in their country.


Photo courtesy of World Vision

Munkhchuluun (left) and his family are warmer in winter now, thanks to a Ger purchased through the World Vision Gift Catalogue.

Summer is a good time to start

Not every child will travel the same journey as Cosette. She has been compared to the American painter Jackson Pollack and her work is currently on display at a Calgary art gallery. But it gives a sense of what's possible when parents listen carefully to what is touching their children's hearts -- and support them in finding personal ways to help.

As summer begins and kids and parents have more time to just breathe together, here are a few ways to begin these important conversations:

  1. Talk with your children about what's happening in the world. There are many news web sites geared specifically for children of different ages. If your child has already express concern about an endangered animal or a group of people in need, make those interests a part of your conversation.
  2. Help them realize their gifts by affirming kids' abilities in art, baking, sports, leading younger children, gardening, music, working with animals, creative writing, or anything else that makes them unique. Help them see that these are gifts, something special that they may be able to share with others in their lives.
  3. Look for opportunities to connect a child's desire to help with their particular gifts. Cosette's parents did it as a larger brainstorm, but your conversation could be a casual chat in the car or on the dock. "Hey, I've been thinking about you, and that amazing project on the Malaysian Sun Bears," I might say to my younger son this summer. "Did you tell me they were endangered? You seem to really care about them..."
  4. Show examples of young people who are using their gifts for change, whether it's Cosette Swart and her artwork, or the girl who used her writing abilities to advocate with Marvel Comics for change to their portrayal of women, or the boys in our neighborhood who played their ukuleles in the park to help cover costs for their friend with cancer.
  5. Find others who can help turn a passion into a purpose. I noticed that the Harbourfront Centre here in Toronto is running a summer camp for older children, in which they'll use their artwork to help create social change. A silent auction of the child's artwork at week's end will raise funds for a cause of the child's own choosing.

Your child may not respond exactly as Cosette Swart did. But the critical thing to remember is that Cosette was ready to help of her own accord, and actively seeking ways to do so. At the very least, some important conversations could happen in your home, car or cottage during the lazy days of summer.


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