The Act of Giving

Last week while driving in the car, my husband and I were discussing the need for our teenagers to volunteer and specifically our high school student for college applications. As we discussed ways for both of them to engage in their community and put forth some commitment, I realized that it felt like a chore. A chore for them and us as we tried to get them committed and active in the task.

Somewhere along the line, I realized we had failed them because community service had become a “job” and not a way of life. When they were younger, our kids actively volunteered in their community through school activities and our church. They grew excited to take a name off the Angel Tree at church and pick a gift for a child at the local orphanage. They spent Christmas mornings to drive to the base and serve steak and eggs breakfasts to on-duty service members. They helped make cookies for the USO cookie drive and talked about the senior home and reading to the elderly.

Where did those giving children of mine go? Why was this such a chore? Thinking back it made me realize that all the activities my children had engaged in involved their interaction with those who “benefited” from their “doing.” but who had benefited from their “service”?

The act of generosity makes a person happy, in turn, it makes you happy, releasing a chemical in the brain called Oxytocin. My children had received a big dose of Oxytocin each time they engaged in activities that made them interact and see the result of their giving actions. We often feel like we have done our part by collecting food for the local pantry and donating clothing to the homeless. All of those endeavors are important and impactful but not as meaningful to children who need to experience the benefit of their efforts.

When our children took a name off the angel tree and helped pick the gift; that wasn’t the end of the giving. They gathered at the community room and celebrated the Christmas with those children and got to see the joy as that child received their gift. They heard the “thank you” and saw the smile on the servicemembers face when they served them breakfast; soon after we took them to a soup kitchen in downtown San Diego. With trepidation and two sulky boys, we spent the day serving meals to homeless families. By the end of the day, our boys were talking about the people, asking questions about what more can we do, and sharing about different individuals they’d met.

During those early years, our children saw beyond the lense of self and saw “the act of giving” as less than a chore and more as a rewarding interaction between people; not a job. We did these things together as a family, and we watched our kids pay it forward in their willingness to do for others, and they gained more than they gave. When we as parents stopped living it at home and in our community we failed our boys because compassion begins at home and is more than a moment but an everyday way of life.

Engagement in community service becomes difficult as our children grow because it brings to mind “work"; however, community service is so much more than work and begins at home and carries over into school. Showing our children by modeling it every day in the way we open the door for the elderly or greeting people with a smile. We should encourage our children to help and not pass judgment on others different minded than ourselves. In that way, we teach our children to show compassion, understanding, and empathy; thus opening the door to doing more beyond the doors of our homes and into the community in which they live.

Remember that community service starts at home and grows into the world beyond as our children become and move forward. It doesn’t begin when we make them volunteer at a shelter or collect for the less fortunate. They will continue to see through the lens of self and not through the eyes of others until they learn compassion.