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3 Strategies to teach kids civic engagement and community service


Dmytro Zinkevych - Shutterstock

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/24/21

Our world needs young people who care and help. These are simple ways to teach kids to serve their community.

It used to be that civic engagement was the expectation for all citizens, rather than the exception for a few. There was a time in this country when most adults were very involved in their local communities, in all kinds of ways. 

Sadly, those days are long gone. And thanks to the rise of the internet and online communication, it doesn’t look likely that they’ll ever come back. 

These online communities have their benefits, but they are no substitute for the real, enriching engagement of in-person participation. There are all kinds of benefits, both obvious and subtle, to spending time with others in person instead of online. 

“Social capital,” that is, the network of relationships among people in our society, has drastically decreased in recent decades. Robert Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone, examines this crisis in detail. We know that this decline of social and civic engagement is hurting all of us.

Deep down, we know that this isn’t what we want for our children and ourselves. We don’t want to spend our lives staring at screens instead of into the eyes of the people around us. 

But how can we build social capital? How can we make it a priority to strengthen our local, in-person networks? How can we teach our children to be helpful and involved citizens instead of being disengaged and indifferent?

I’ve found that the best way to teach this is by example. We can tell our children what to do all day long, but it’s our examples that will make the real difference. For better or worse, our kids model themselves on our behavior.

It turns out that modeling civic engagement is not complicated. Here are 3 ways I’ve found to teach my children to be involved in our local community.

1Volunteer at the library

I’m a board member for the “Friends of the Library” chapter at our local library branch. It’s a small, sweet, refreshingly old-fashioned library in the Chicago suburbs. My kids and I go there once or twice a week and we all love visiting.

As a board member, I do simple things like sort and sell used books at book sales, call local businesses to arrange fundraising events, and organize trivia or game nights. None of it is complicated, and these are things that my kids can (mostly) help me do. They’re especially excited about the book sale: What kid doesn’t like to “play store”?

I love teaching my kids that we can give back to a place that has given us so much. And getting involved with the library has helped us make new friends in our neighborhood. It’s a win for everyone.

You can also get involved and support your local library. Or you might volunteer at a different place that is a hub of activity for your community. It’s a wonderful way to teach kids about service and doing our part.

2Join a community garden

There are loads of great reasons to join a community garden! Gardening improves both your physical and mental health. 

Gardening in a community brings even more benefits. Volunteering to weed the garden or water everyone’s plants is a great way for children to be genuinely helpful. It’s also a fantastic way to make friends and build social capital!

3Attend a march, protest, parade, or rally

If there is a cause you care about, bring your children to support it vocally and publicly as a family. 

For me, one of those causes is freedom for Cuba. I am Cuban on both sides of my family, and while my parents and grandparents were lucky enough to leave the country, many others were not so fortunate. 

I grew up knowing that we were a people in exile. I heard stories of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner and about atrocities my family witnessed under the Castro regime. 

Today the Cuban people are rebelling against a brutal dictatorship that has oppressed them for 62 years. But their government is doing everything possible to suppress their outcry to the world. They’re confiscating phones, cutting off power and WiFi access, and imprisoning and killing anyone who questions any of this.

The world is witnessing these horrors through the text messages and videos that Cubans on the island have been able to send, using VPN connections and other means. Meanwhile, we Cuban-Americans feel an enormous obligation to amplify the voices of our countrymen who are suffering and cannot speak out for themselves. We feel a duty to be a bridge between the cultures and share the truth of what’s happening on the island.

Keeping all this in mind, I took my children to a local rally in support of the Cuban people last week. We held signs, chanted for freedom, prayed together for Cuba, and loudly called attention to the plight of Cuba. In the years ahead, I hope my children will remember that we tried to do what we could to help our homeland.

Your cause will be something different, most likely, but think about what matters most to you and how you can support it. Perhaps you’ll attend a protest, like we did. Perhaps you’ll make calls or write letters to politicians in support of your cause. Whatever you do, you can point it out to your children and explain why you’re doing it.

Speaking out in support of a cause you believe in is a great feeling. Afterward you’ll feel so glad you did your part. And it’s a wonderful example to your children. 

Hopefully, together, we can raise children who volunteer, give back, speak out, and genuinely care about helping their communities. It’s not only good for them but also for our nation and our world. 

Catholic LifestyleChildrenParenting
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