I recently asked my almost 8-year-old granddaughter what she wanted for her birthday. Without any hesitation, she said she wanted donations to an animal hospital she had visited. I was struck by her request, and it tugged at my heart strings. Although I didn’t expect that response, it really didn’t surprise me. This child has always put others before herself. She is the walking picture of patriotism, class celebrations, and good will. She wears red, white and blue like it’s her job. She collects supplies for her art teacher, bottle caps for another donation, and is intensely interested in the environment. As I drove her to school one morning, she talked with me about one of the presidential candidates…much to my amusement. I asked her where she learned all of those “facts,” and she responded that she’d seen it on the news. Many adults don’t watch the news, but this child was “up” on the latest.
I started thinking about kids I’ve worked with over the years, and began wondering how certain ones became so civic-minded. Most schools have a character education program that often includes service projects. Many schools are now incorporating service learning into the curriculum. Every child has the opportunity to serve the greater community-at-large thanks to these programs. But why is it that some children really take it to heart and become service-oriented? Is it nature or is it nurture?
I started asking different parents and educators this question: how do children become civic-minded…is it their upbringing or is it in the DNA? The common answer surprised me…every adult I asked said, “It’s both.” I began thinking about my granddaughter’s parents. I would consider both of them to be very civic-minded. They live in the city because they love the diversity it offers. They are kind, giving individuals. They are not focused on the material things in life. Since this child was tiny, her parents have exposed her to honoring and appreciating the environment and humankind. They search for opportunities to appreciate diversity and differences. Family outings revolve around nature and discovery…hiking, bird watching, gardening. The family dog came from a rescue organization. The crops from their garden elicit great pride and appreciation. Vacations are not about amusement parks or shopping excursions; they are to places where nature and diversity abound…the beach, the mountains, parks. Her parents don’t focus on this type of exposure for their child when they make plans; honestly, it’s because those are the places and things that they like to see and do. She blends into their plans. But it’s more than that because, not only does she blend in, she breathes in these experiences.
I reflected on past students who impressed me with their civic-mindedness. These kids were all about giving back to their communities. Whatever service project they got involved with, they jumped in with both feet and were over the top involved. When a fellow student’s home burned down, they began a campaign to raise funds for the family, and the amount they collected was staggering. With any type of injustice or inequity, these kids looked for some way to solve the issue. They had boundless enthusiasm, infinite hope, and determination out-the-wazoo. And never was it about them. In fact, when I nominated two of them for a scholarship that honored those who serve, they were dumbfounded. They couldn’t understand why they should be honored for doing what was right. They lived and breathed giving.
Once again, I had to think back about their parents. None valued “things”; they valued people, and experiences, and the process of serving. They were “involved” parents but not in a helicopter way…they looked for ways to support the school, the church, the organization or whatever entity they were involved in. And all of these parents of these civic-minded children encouraged and embraced their child’s individuality and uniqueness. None of these kids were “in the popular crowd” doing the “popular” things, but they were very well-liked by other kids and adults (teachers loved them), had many friends, and they were deeply respected. My guess is that, when they go/went to their class reunions, the common remembrance about these kids will be how nice they were to everyone. What a way to be remembered.
One of my friends was the national school counselor of the year, and another was a state school counselor of the year. I was interested in talking with them about this issue of civic-mindedness because I wanted their perspectives on the nature vs. nurture issue. Both of these highly respected professionals were emphatic that nurture plays a huge part in kids becoming civic-minded. However, one said this: “But don’t ever discount the role that nature plays. Just when you think it’s nurture, some kid who has little to no parental support, and limited financial means will step up and lead the way in a service project.” He went on to say that he’s seen children with limited means be the first ones to bring in cans of food for a local food pantry…and he knew the families of those kids were often the families who received the services of those pantries. But those special kids didn’t think about themselves or their circumstances. They stepped outside of their circumstances to serve the greater good, never thinking about themselves.
So how, as parents, can we provide the foundation for the spirits of our children to expand and grow inward and upward? Here are a few suggestions that my colleagues offered:
Remember: More Is Caught Than Taught
Parents are their child's first and most influential teacher. Actions are bigger than words. Children are sponges watching your every move. Show your children through your actions that all people matter. They are watching how you treat others and where/how you spend your money.
Like adults, children are shaped by the people they meet and books they read. These experiences can make us feel uncomfortable. When we have an opportunity to think or do something in a different way it helps us grow and change. Being uncomfortable changes our thoughts, actions, and feelings. Get your family out of their comfort zone by attending a new cultural event, volunteering for something out-of-the-ordinary, or having a family book study.
Have Courageous Conversations
It is necessary for parents and educators to take time to have courageous conversations with our kids. Kids need to hear what we have to say and share what they think. This will reinforce or develop interests. Take time during dinner to discuss current and historical events. Don’t forget that a courageous conversation also means listening to what your kids have to say. Really hear what they say and try to suspend your own opinions. Kids need and want to have a voice, and have their voices valued.
As parents, we will face those questions we dread. But those are the exact times when our influence can be at its greatest. The questions from our children can help US grow and learn and reflect. If we’re not comfortable giving an answer, it may mean that we don’t like the answer…so maybe we need to reflect and change our own behavior. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something; it’s a perfect time to put the question back on your child: “What do YOU think about this? I’m not sure.” It’s also perfectly ok to let your child know that you don’t like the answer you are giving. But be ready to explain why. Kids may say the “darnedest things” but they also can serve as powerful mirrors for us to look inward.
Encourage and Honor Individuality
Each child is a gift, wrapped in uniqueness. They are a wonder, each in his/her own way. Love that uniqueness, protect it, and nurture it in any and all circumstances. Our kids should not be expected to be “mini-me’s”. They should be allowed to grow and thrive to become passionate about life, invested in reaching their full potential, loving themselves, others and the world around them.
Civic-mindedness…is it nature or is it nurture? Or both? Think about it. As for me, I need to write a check to an animal hospital for an 8-year-old’s birthday.
Dr. Sharon Sevier has been in education for 40 years. During that time, she has been a classroom teacher, a school counselor at every level, a district director of guidance and counseling, and an adjunct faculty member at various colleges and universities in New York and Missouri. Sevier has presented, written, and co-authored a number of articles and resources related to school counseling. She has served in a number of leadership positions within her profession, including as president of the Missouri School Counselor Association and Government Relations Chair, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the American School Counselor Association.