Date: January 1, 2009
The daily news can make issues like poverty and the environment seem overwhelming, yet by focusing on issues in ways that make sense to children, parents can raise socially conscious kids who care about the world beyond themselves.
"One of the best ways to build socially conscious kids is to give them opportunities to reach out and help others," says Heather Norman-Scott, Ph.D., a Durham psychologist. She suggests starting out by talking about topics such as the environment and caring and respecting our world and all living creatures.
Talking about issues
Fuquay-Varina mom Cindy Tatem and her husband have an open communication policy with their children. "With society and the world the way it is, we can only pray that our family fundamentals will help them process the world around them," Tatum says. She adds that she and her husband focus on compassion, the human spirit and tolerance through their faith in hopes that their children can "pave the way for something awesome when we are old and gray."
A clinical psychologist and Director of Child and Family Services at the University of North Carolina, Jennifer Youngstrom, Ph.D., says that talking about topics and exposing children to a range of people and settings in a safe way encourages social awareness.
"Parents could begin with a discussion of current events and the news, reading children's books about important historical figures who have championed social equalities, encouraging children to participate in small acts to conserve water and resources, and visits to urban and rural areas," she says.
Youngstrom and her husband recently took their children, ages 6 and 8, with them to a conference in India. "We discussed poverty, population density and the role of women ahead of time," she says.
"During and after the trip, we have discussed our good fortune and differences in the roles of women in each society," Youngstrom says. As a result, her children continue to talk and write about their experience.
"Our kids returned to the U.S. extraordinarily thankful for many of the things often taken for granted [like] food, shelter, clothes, non-arranged marriages, and they have happily and repeatedly donated clothes, toys and food since our return."
To keep from worrying children or scaring them about big societal issues, Norman-Scott suggests focusing on helping and protecting to empower kids and teach them about their community. Several local families are taking steps to do just that.
Poverty and homelessness
Jeannine Herrick, a Durham mother of two, thinks involving her children in addressing issues like poverty teaches them three important things: gathering, giving and gratitude. For her son's upcoming fifth birthday, friends have been asked to bring inexpensive art supplies for her son and one or two pantry items.
"My son understands that not everyone has enough to eat, and he thought it would be nice to take the food to the local food pantry," Herrick says. "He gets to help plan all the details of his parties and still thinks that the 'specialness' of his birthday is about the celebration, not the presents."
Samantha Vermillion wants to teach her children about reconciliation, justice and poverty. "When we see someone asking for money, we try to have breakfast bars and water to give," says the Durham mother of two girls, ages 2 and 4.
She sees her faith as a guiding factor in how to communicate and teach these issues to her daughters, particularly homelessness. "When they ask who the man is, I explain that he is someone God loves very much, who may have had hard things happen in his life, but that if Jesus were here he would give him a feast and be his friend," Vermillion says.
For parents who may be concerned that weighty issues such as poverty will scare their children, Youngstrom encourages communication. "First, explain to the children what they will see, plan ahead about how to keep them safe during the encounter, and discuss the events in simple language afterwards. Parents can discuss how they've created safety and the relatively low likelihood of the situations occurring [to their family]," she says.
'If [my daughter] sees a can at the park,she brings it home so we can recycle it.'
— Sheri Sampson
The Sheppard family of Chapel Hill was concerned about environmental issues, so they participated in a "carbon challenge" to measure the impact of their lifestyle choices on the environment. They found that some of their decisions — living in a smaller home, having one "family" car and one smaller car, using compact fluorescent bulbs and line-drying clothes — were effective ways to keep their environmental impact low.
Along with their green habits, mom Claudia Sheppard wants to communicate positive messages to her 10- and 8-year-old daughters. She doesn't want them to feel that "all hope is lost," she says, "but I don't think that they feel like that as long as they are being empowered."
Susan Quinby-Honer, owner of Red Hen Enterprises and locally known as "the Worm Lady," advocates teaching kids about the dramatic problems associated with our environment and lifestyle. "The earth is sick. It would be a scary thing if you didn't give them a solution," she says.
Quinby-Honer talks about composting and waste reduction to children in preschool through high school by taking worms into classrooms. Quinby-Honer's motto — "Starve the landfill; Feed the earth" — has produced young environmental activists.
Sheri Sampson was amazed at how quickly her children, ages 2 and 5, became intrigued with environmental issues, particularly recycling. She and her elder daughter put Habitat for Humanity Cans for Homes recycling bins in her daughter's preschool. They also arranged for the Habitat folks to talk to the preschool students about the program, which uses money earned from recycling to build homes.
Sampson's daughters caught the recycling bug. "If [my daughter] sees a can at a park, she brings it home so we can recycle it," Sampson says. Like many parents, Sampson attempts to balance environmental conservation messages. "I don't want to make the earth's situation seem too serious or gloomy," she says. "I want her to care, but don't want to stress her out."
Noelle Stam, 7, of Durham was so inspired by the idea of helping sick, abused and neglected horses that she dedicated her most recent birthday party to the Triangle Chapter of U.S. Equine Rescue League.
"I liked helping the horses, because some people don't treat them very well," Noelle says. "I think I have too many toys anyway, " she adds. Instead of presents, she asked friends and family members to make donations.
Her mother, Daphne, encouraged Noelle to follow a charitable interest. "I had just purged a bunch of pink plastic from the playroom and despaired at the thought of adding more," Daphne Stam says.
A recent news story about local animal rescue leagues also spurred the action. "In my own charitable giving, I try to focus on local groups," Stam says. "I told her I was very proud of her for making that choice; it was a very unselfish, wonderful thing, and she beamed. And even though her birthday was weeks away and she had plenty of time to change her mind, she never wavered," she adds.
Cultural diversity awareness
Durham mother of two Beth Messersmith is passionate about teaching her young children about diversity.
"The biggest thing for us is proactively making an effort to ensure that they have lots of people of different backgrounds as special parts of their lives," she says. To achieve this, the Messersmiths chose a culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood and preschool. They participate in local festivals and plan play dates with families that differ from their own.
"We try to particularly encourage friendships and play dates with children who have a different background than we do: being raised by two moms, coming from a different country, being of a different race," Messersmith says. She believes that by having these relationships, she and her husband communicate their family values.
Live up to your beliefs
Messersmith also is an active participant in the Triangle MomsRising chapter that plans community service and community involvement actives in which even young children can take part.
"I believe that the more you integrate service, tolerance and respect into your own day-to-day life and into your child's life, the more likely it is that they will grow up to believe that these are important," she says.
Durham dad Jeff Frank was politically radical as a younger man, which caused a lot of conflict with his own father. Though his politics have balanced out over the years, he struggles with how to parent in a way that fairly conveys his beliefs.
"As I face decisions in raising my son, it is important that I recognize that I am not looking to indoctrinate him in my belief system," Frank says. "My goal is to offer all I can as a role model and guardian, while allowing him to develop into a free-thinking individual."
Many parents feel that modeling the behaviors they want to see from their kids is the best way to teach about the hot-button issues that today's children will face.
Chapel Hill mom Christine Jernigan says, "I struggle with many of these issues. The consumption one is probably most important to me. I do not let my children watch television because I feel the marketing is mercilessly geared towards them."
She is troubled when she overhears parents complaining around their children about possessions. "Kids pick up on this," Jernigan says. "I let my children know through the way I talk and buy that we have enough. I describe our house as a big house and focus on how lucky we are to have it."
Ultimately, she thinks the example her family models will teach her kids about what is important. As Jernigan says: "Be who you want your kids to be."
Robin Whitsell lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three children.
Community Involvement Opportunities
The following organizations and Web sites provide community service information and help match individuals, families and groups with volunteer and service opportunities.
A virtual and actual community of kids and adults that creates and identifies local and global volunteer activities for young people.
Local nonpartisan group focused on activism and community service that is generally concerned with issues affecting moms and families. Plans to have volunteer activities for families.
Triangle United Way Volunteer Services
Online list of volunteer opportunities across the Triangle, including projects for groups.
Volunteer Center of Durham
Local organization that lists volunteer opportunities, some of which are appropriate for families.
National organization helps match volunteers with projects in local communities. Can search to request matches suitable for children.