When Julee Niemants teaches history to sixth-graders at Dundee Elementary School, she doesn’t just want her students to understand the past. She also wants them to develop an understanding for people in the present.
The best way to do that, she believes, is to give back.
Enter the llama.
Niemants challenged her class to buy one for a Bolivian family in need by raising $150 through an in-school sucker sale. The students embraced the call to action.
“I was looking for something that would help the kids feel like they were doing something big,” she explained. “Children are very hopeful and innocent and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Right now is the time to instill caring for others.”
Dr. Sean Akers, clinical pediatric psychologist with Children’s Behavioral Health, agreed.
“Doing things for other people is extremely important,” he noted. “When you’re totally focused on yourself, it’s easy to forget there are people in need who might lead very different lives. It’s important for kids to see others from a compassionate perspective beyond their electronics, toys and TVs.”
The payoff can be big. Not only do children develop compassion and empathy for others, but they also feel good about themselves.
“When we start giving back to others, there’s a lot of evidence that we feel better about ourselves,” Akers said. “It’s very important to have kids start doing things for other people for self-esteem.”
Niemants’ students certainly felt wonderful about themselves. They raised almost double their goal – enough for the llama plus a goat.
“They were so excited,” she said. “They did something for someone else, and they made a difference. Who doesn’t want to do that?”
First steps: 7 ways to put others first
“Giving back teaches children to see the world from a different perspective,” Akers said. “The only way – the best way – really, to do that is to expose them to other lives.”
Seven places to start:
• Head with your children to a local park or playground and pick up trash. The next time you visit, they’ll take pride in knowing they’ve done their part to keep their community space beautiful.
• Donate no longer watched DVDs to a pediatrician’s office for other children’s enjoyment.
• Purchase toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo and deliver them to a local homeless shelter. While shopping, explain that other people may need help from time to time and this is one way to provide that assistance.
• Assist an elderly neighbor by bringing in trash cans or shoveling a sidewalk.
• The next time a neighbor heads out of town, volunteer with your child to take in the mail, water plants or look after a pet.
• When lemonade stand time rolls around, have kids choose a charity they care about and donate all proceeds to it. Encourage them to tell their customers where they’re putting their profits. Consider providing a 1:1 match.
• Instead of gifts at the next birthday party, suggest that your child request items for a specific charity, such as diapers for a women’s shelter or pet food for an animal shelter.
The original version of this article appeared in the February 2016 issue of Momaha Magazine.