Is Shattered Innocence a Pre-requisite to Teaching a Child About Philanthropy?
The short answer is--yes
Confronting a child of privilege, no matter how you define that privilege, with the fact that not everyone in the world is as fortunate as she is-- comes with consequences. But what's a parent to do? We all struggle with striking a balance between wanting to protect our children from the harsh realities of the world and not over-insulating them from that very same 'real world'. Finding that place in the middle that doesn't scare or intimidate them, but inspires them is not easy. Or is it?
In the age of screens and digital everything, we have all moved away from what was once a more hands-on existence. The horrors of Haiti's earthquake are sanitized with the help of Anderson Cooper and on-line fundraising efforts that make it very easy to 'pitch in' from the comfort of our own SUV or sofa. Heifer International (I am a big fan and donor) has taken the art of packaging poverty and hunger to a whole new level with poignant, beautiful and accurate descriptions of the need in so many countries and yet there is something so corporate and glossy (translation: successful) about the imagery and language. The focus is on success, entrepreneurial spirit, and the empowerment that comes with education. Gone are the tiny children in thread-bare clothing with distended bellies due to malnutrition and the visible rib cage. Gone are the ever-present vulture-like flies we all remember from the Sally Struthers commercials for Save the Children. Let's face it though, very few of us are as adventurous as Nicholas Kristof and his family who globe trot through some of the scariest and most heart-wrenching life circumstances on the planet, kids in tow.
So you thought you would introduce your child to the notion of giving back and want to start by finding them a place to volunteer. Great. But at what age and in what environment? With the homeless at a shelter? With the physically sick in a hospital or the developmentally disabled? And what kind of volunteering experience with what type of exposure and people and...supervision? The 'right' answer to these questions will be different for every child. There is certainly some wisdom in protecting younger children by limiting their exposure. But as little boys and girls approach the pre-teen years, when they will begin to confront all bevy of harsh realities outside the bubble of their home, where do you draw the line? The short answer is, a lot depends on your own comfort level with the realities of those less fortunate and your willingness to talk about how fortunate you are.
Children, in my experience, are not nearly as fragile as we adults think they are. Our own anxieties and discomfort with disparities throughout society will play a bigger role in our children's life perspective than any one-off volunteer experience will.
If we want our children to understand the challenges that so many people face and for them to develop an empathetic world view, we need to model for them what amounts to good citizenship. For many of us, that starts by stretching beyond our own comfort zones.
If you are lucky enough to have your work/professional life place you at the heart of helping others (health/education come to mind) then you have likely already established some basic comfort with the messiness of life. Getting your hands dirty with the messiness of life is unavoidable in some fields. But for those of us who either don't work outside the home or whose professional lives are more sterile, coming face-to-face with...well...humanity and the fragility of it all, can be understandably unnerving. Getting beyond our own fears and discomfort is hard enough, but why would we then want to extend that challenge to our children? Because doing so will make them better, more enlightened, stronger, more resilient individuals.
Mental illness, disease, poverty, learning disabilities, natural disasters can all be traumatizing by virtue of how they impact lives. Witnessing these things up close, even as a volunteer or donor, can be traumatic too, but it doesn't have to be. Not for you and not for your children. As with most things in life, the key ingredient is education.
Start by educating yourself. When contemplating a volunteer opportunity for you and your family or your children, do everything you can to understand as much as you can about the environment you are entering-- before you enter it with the children. Think of it like learning how to ski (or at least having some facility on the slopes) before you jump on the chair lift with your 7 year old. Talk to the professionals in advance. Be open about your trepidation and concerns for your child. Who are the clients being served? What are their diagnosis? What will they look like? What are their needs? What should you expect? How can you best prepare so that your volunteer experience is a success for you, but more importantly--for the people you are serving. Ask to hear about past volunteer 'success' stories and relationships. If those stories don't inspire you to take the leap, nothing will.
Not letting your own fears limit the opportunities you put in front of your children is a parenting challenge in every arena-- not just the philanthropic one. But making the world a better place requires guts, bravery and generosity of spirit-- so if you are feeling a bit stretched, then you are likely doing it the right way.
-Thom Hamill, President
WealthRight Partners Inc.,