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Mom was taken aback. She let him stay in the car but says, “It was hard to concentrate on my shopping. My son was turning into a snob.” The outing embarrassed Marc and worried Mom, who fretted she was raising a spoiled and entitled teen.
Shortly after that incident, life changed at our house. Mom was eager for Marc to see that we were very lucky. She dragged him along when she went to see the immigrant families whom she supported with small gifts and acts of kindness.
Teaching children how easy it is to make a difference
One of these homes belonged to the Chan family from Hong Kong. Mrs. Chan had a girl and three boys, and her daughter was in Mom’s class at school. Aware that they were struggling, Mom got to know the family and did what she could. From time to time, the Chans joined us for dinner and on family outings. We took them gifts at Christmas, likely the only ones they received.
One Christmas, Mom asked Marc to accompany her on the gift run. The Chans lived in a run-down building in Toronto, the kind where the elevators stink of urine. The family’s two-bedroom apartment was dingy. It was a world away from our comfortable bungalow. Marc was uncomfortable. He thought the plan was to drop off the presents and be gone.
But as he sat there he started to pay closer attention. He noticed that the children were in their fanciest clothing and on their best behaviour. The cookies before him were clearly a luxury. It dawned on him that the visit that seemed meaningless to him was of great importance to Mrs. Chan.
Mom presented the gifts, which were accepted gratefully. Then Mrs. Chan handed a small present to Marc. “You are our best friends,” she said in broken English. “And best friends are so important to us. Thank you.” The words, which Marc will never forget, cut through his cool veneer. He realized Mom’s kindness, time and caring meant the world to these isolated and impoverished newcomers. He marvelled at how easy it had been to make a difference.
Page 1 of 3--On page 2: How you can raise empathetic kids
Today, many people wonder how we ended up becoming activists. Truth be told, we were following our mom and dad’s lead all along. Mom thinks it’s crucial that parents help their children look critically at what they see. “If we want to raise children to be caring citizens, we must teach them from an early age to open their eyes to their world. Kids need to learn to look at all sides of an issue, to put themselves into a situation mentally and see how they would feel.”
As for Dad, every morning when we were kids, he would spread the newspaper on the table in our sunny, plant-filled kitchen and point out world happenings and local injustices. War in Bosnia. Drought in Ethiopia. A cat stuck in a tree in Thornhill, Ont. We'd talk about the issues at the heart of each story. Sometimes – but not always – we’d muse about how we might get involved or learn more. Research Bosnia, raise money, get a ladder. Dad always listened to our ideas. Each and every day, we drank
up lessons in kindness.
We share our stories to show you that we were ordinary in every way.
Anyone can make a different, not just the wealthy
Our last name is not Buffett or Gates. We are not born of wealth, though our parents always sought out the best for us – material goods, sure, but also a solid foundation from which to move through the world with care and compassion.
Parents are the key to nurturing compassion in the next generation. A recent survey revealed that by donating their own time and resources to the community, parents nurture the importance of service and inspire their children to volunteer throughout their lives. Another study found that children are most likely to volunteer if their parents give time to the community.
In other words, the volunteer work you do today will inspire the volunteers of tomorrow.
Like many kids today, we were enrolled in a crowded schedule of extracurricular activities. In addition, Mom and Dad took Craig to speech therapy each week. In between, they helped out with homework. In return, we were expected to pitch in around the home. Under our roof, Mom and Dad also cared for our grandfather, Peter, and Mom’s mom, Mimi, who is now well into her nineties. As kids, watching our parents care for their ailing parents taught us to help out.
Page 2 of 3--On page 3: Lead by example, and your kids will follow
Surprisingly, until we started our book, The World Needs Your Kid, we had no idea that Mom had worked with the homeless, or that Dad once spent a summer volunteering in a community for the mentally disabled. Although they’d never shared specifics, it was clear they’d always been motivated by an inexhaustible concern for others – starting with those at home.
When we were kids, we didn’t talk about changing the world, but we often discussed how we could make it better for the people in our lives. When we were planning a birthday party, for example, Mom would encourage us to include kids who were often excluded. She asked us to reflect on how we’d feel in their place. If we burst in the door buzzing about a playground dustup, Mom and Dad would ask who did the bullying and to whom. Just as important, they’d want to know what we did or didn’t do about it.
Your children are watching. If you are compassionate, they will also try to be. If you counsel compassion but are not that way yourself, there is a good chance you’ll end up raising a cynic. For better – and sometimes for worse – you are the guiding force.
Lead by example
In our house, no matter what we were trying to express, Mom and Dad listened and supported us without judgment. Mom and Dad made sure our home was always welcoming and no matter the cause, they were quick to offer up their van, their house, their time. And so it was with everything in our lives. If they believed in what we were doing – Scouts or public speaking, for example – they supported it wholeheartedly.
Our parents also did their best to expose our softer side. We were never told, “Boys don’t cry” – and thank goodness for that! Dad never ordered us to “Suck it up!” if we took a hit on the playing field. He did the laundry, cleaning and most of the cooking, plus he packed our lunches. Watching Dad, we learned to contribute.
Parents need to help kids stop and notice the bigger – or smaller – picture. You can help them explore large-scale problems and overwhelming events. Whether you lead a child to think about something large or small, all that’s required is your guiding presence.
Truth be told, there’s a bit of Zen in moments when you let go of everything and simply stop to take something in, whether it is an injustice, a problem or unexpected beauty. All you have to say is, “Check that out,” or “Look, did you notice this?”
As ethereal as we know it sounds, this is exactly how Mom and Dad awakened our passion for social justice. When Mom took us to her classroom or Dad pulled something out of the headlines, they’d make sure we noticed. They’d pause to put things in context. When appropriate, they’d ask us how we’d improve a situation. Each conversation reminded us that everyone is connected.
Discover your family values
We encourage you to define the values you hold most dear. In our household, it was the Three Cs: Courage, Compassion and Community. If you’re not sure about your family’s values, ask your kids. It might be sobering to hear them say, “We can’t fail. We must get into the best schools.” Or it might be deeply moving if they say, “We believe in helping people. We put people first. We try to lighten our load on the environment. We always do our best.”
Our hope is that the parents of today can raise a generation of children who can stop dreaming about a better world and begin to live in one.
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This is an edited excerpt from The World Needs Your Kid (Me to We Books, 2009) by Craig and Marc Kielburger and Shelley Page.