Have you ever wondered if charity projects are actually helping solve a problem? Did you know that some of the most common charity projects, such as canned food drives and volunteering at soup kitchens, can often cause just as much harm as they do good?
Take a canned food drive, for example. I imagine you have purchased a can of food to send to school with your child for the annual Christmas canned food drive, right? Your child feels good about having “helped” a stranger as they drop the can into the box, evident by the smile in their eyes.
By donating a can of food and leaving it at that, we are often reinforcing stereotypes that children hold about people living in poverty.
These stereotypes might include statements such as “People are poor because they are lazy” and “Poor people have chosen to live like that,” when none of these assumptions are necessarily true. You and I both know that a few cans of food are not going to make the world a better place. It takes more than that.
Service is good. But service can be great when you combine service with learning.
The challenge is to not simply engage kids in quick fixes and fun projects but to also help kids learn and then build relationships with the human beings they aim to serve. Sounds harder than just buying a can of soup, right? Might I purpose that helping others should require more than 78 cents to buy a can of vegetables?
The next time your family has the opportunity to help, whether by buying food for a homeless man on the corner or serving at a local soup kitchen, help your child learn as they serve.
You might start by helping your child think about a few of the root causes of poverty. This sounds hard, but it can be as simple as explaining that there are many things that cause people to not be able to buy food or pay for housing. These might include:
- Difficult Economy. There are a lot of people needing work, but not a lot of jobs available.
- Lack of Education. Without skills in reading and writing, it is difficult to get a job that can pay the bills. There are a lot of people who have not had the chance to learn, even here in the United States.
- Medical expenses. Many people, whether rich or poor, develop difficult medical problems that cost a lot of money. Many people are unable to pay for the medical costs as well as continue paying the other living expenses.
These three examples are not the only causes of poverty but are top leading causes of poverty and are also child-friendly.
If there are elements to the situation that you don’t know much about, learn together. We also suggest helping your child imagine being in a similar situation to develop empathy. Ask your kids questions such as:
- WHO do you think can help this person? Help your child recognize that it’s the responsibility of people to help others who are in need, but often it takes many people to help in any given situation.
- WHAT are some things you would want if you were in the same situation? Help your child come up with a few ideas, then use these ideas to show kindness to another.
- WHEN should I help? Help your child think through the importance of caring for his or her needs as well as the needs of others.
Canned food drives, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when the experience does not incorporate opportunities for kids to learn, we are creating a problem.
We are teaching kids that answers to complex issues can be easy, thoughtless and quick.
Stereotypes and prejudices are fostered. Relationships are not developed. And, most frightening of them all, we find ourselves nurturing a shallow understanding of what it means to help, care for and serve others.
We need to give kids the opportunity to get involved and learn about topics like hunger, the need for water, and the importance of hygiene instead of just collecting supplies and moving on to the next thing.
We encourage you to not just go through the motions as you serve others but help your child learn as well.