Inspire for Contribution

We want kids to understand that the goal of learning is to use what they know to help others and make the world a better place.

By Heather Bryant, M.Ed., Director of Innovation and Impact | Mar 18, 2016
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I hate to say it, but we seem to have veered off course a little lately. We are relying on motivating kids, both at school and at home, with a constant flow of extrinsic rewards: stickers, happy faces, sad faces, treats, and – let’s face it – bribery. (Not that I’ve ever resorted to that, but I’ve heard some people do it. :) You probably remember a period of time, in the not-so-recent past, when self-esteem became the hot topic of the day. Kids were handed participation ribbons just for showing up. The result of this shift in thinking? Self-absorbed kids who relied on external motivators in order to get things done.  Kids who cared more about looking smart rather than actually being smart. Kids who were afraid to take risks and fail.

We know from research that external motivators don’t work for the long term. In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he explains that external motivators really only work with repeated, monotonous tasks. They don’t encourage thinking or creativity, and they don’t help kids work harder or better.

So we know that the time has come to make that shift. We need to start helping kids learn and work hard, not for ribbons and trophies, and not just for the sake of learning. We want kids to understand that the goal of learning is to use what they know to help others and make the world a better place.

The good news is that kids want to make a difference. They naturally care about their environment and about others. Those of us who have kids and work with kids know this – when opportunities arise for kids to do something good for their classroom or school or home or neighborhood, they jump at the chance. So we can capitalize on that enthusiasm and build it up rather than let it wither as they get older.

One really simple way to raise kids who care about others is to simply encourage them to think about others. In our school, when a student is absent, the other students send well wishes. If your son comes home from school and mentions that his buddy Gabriel was absent, you can say, “Oh, I wonder why Gabriel was absent today? Maybe he is sick, or maybe he is on vacation with his family. We should send him some friendly wishes – wherever he is!”

Another simple – and similar – routine is to send well wishes to people we don’t know. We can start small and expand outward. So you might encourage a child to send friendly wishes to all of the members of her family, and then her class, and then her whole school. Then you can extend well wishes to all of the people in the neighborhood, and the city, and the whole state. Then you can send friendly wishes to every person in the country, and every person in the world. Let her know that friendly wishes simply means kind thoughts about those people – that you hope for happiness and health for everyone. For older kids, you can encourage them to send friendly wishes to someone who bothers them, or someone who they’ve had a recent conflict with. This exercise, though simple, reminds the child that she’s not the center of the universe and that there are millions of other people, all deserving of well wishes.

Perhaps the best way to raise kids who care about others and strive to do good in the world is to provide them opportunities to practice. By this, I mean encouraging them to participate in service learning. For very young kids, this might mean doing a project within their classroom or school, like teaching them about the environment and then having them gather up the recycling bins in the school. Older kids will benefit from choosing their activity. Kids can brainstorm on issues that affect their community and things they can do to make a difference. It’s best if the activity is directly related to the issue. So, for example, even though it’s important that invitations to a fundraising event get stamped and mailed, kids won’t learn much from stuffing envelopes. But they can learn something from going to a shelter or a clinic or a nursing home and meeting people in need.

At Momentous School, our fifth grade class participates in a service learning project at a downtown homeless shelter. The project has evolved over the years as the teachers learn what the experience is like for the kids. Now the project involves a field trip to the shelter during the middle of the year. Only after they’ve toured the facility and learned about the clients and the needs of the community do they start a drive for donations. They gather up items that they know will be helpful to the clients served, and then they package them up along with handwritten notes. This project is impactful because the kids truly understand where their donations are going. They’ve seen the faces of the people who will be receiving them. Last year after visiting the shelter, one student said that she was surprised how happy the homeless people were, and she enjoyed seeing the artwork that they created and listening to the choir practice. She said, “I thought homeless people didn’t have any talents – I thought that’s why they were homeless.  But that’s not the reason.” Talk about a perspective shift! This student now sees homeless people in a different way. She’s more likely to approach homeless people with compassion rather than judgement. One simple field trip, and the accompanying project, made a huge impact on her.

And when it comes down to it, that’s what we need to be doing. We need to teach children about the interdependence of humanity. We’re all connected. Sometimes we are in a position where need help from others, and sometimes we’re in a position where we can give help to others. When we teach children compassion over competition, we can truly raise the next generation of people who will see a need and feel compelled to act.