The World at Large
When Christine Melone's boys turned 4 and 6, they begged their parents to let them join T-ball and soccer teams in their town of Alpharetta, GA. "We took it as an opportunity to discuss social obligation," says Melone. "We explained that it would be their responsibility to attend all practices and games, even when they didn't feel like it."
Social responsibility includes the understanding that our behavior affects others, for good or bad. Psychologists say it's something even infants can grasp. "One of the first things you can do in this area is to respond to your baby when he cries," says developmental psychologist Sharon Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life. He'll learn early on that his actions can have an impact on others.
At around age 2, children begin to master simple social rules, such as "We don't yell at our friends" and "We don't grab things out of Mommy's hands." Their ability to follow these rules will grow with their ability to feel compassion, says Ellis. Much of this will develop naturally: As early as age 2, kids can be seen soothing a distressed friend. By age 3, most feel remorse when they hurt someone. But parents should still prompt apologies or small restitutions: "Because you broke Charlie's crayon, it would be nice of you to give him one of yours." At around age 4 or 5, children become aware of the world beyond their friends and family. They may notice the homeless man camped out in front of the library or have a classmate who wears leg braces. Many well-meaning parents avoid discussing tougher subjects for fear of troubling their children, but this can leave them feeling helpless. A better tack, say child psychologists: Involve your kids in making a positive difference.
Ellis recalls the pride her 4-year-old son took in raising money for UNICEF at Halloween. "He was thrilled to bring the 11 dollars to his Sunday school teacher," she says.
Children can also be encouraged to set aside a portion of their allowance or other earnings for charity. In our house, we sit down with Eva every few months to help her decide where she'd like her "good deed" money to go. One month she wanted to help poor children (Childreach International); another time, Javan rhinos (World Wildlife Fund).
Another option is to establish a family tradition of community service, says Rosenberg. Even preschoolers, working alongside their parents, can help wipe tables at a homeless shelter, pick up trash in a public park, or visit a nursing home. By doing so, the world and our children will be the better for it.