At a school visit a while back an elementary was finishing up on a food drive. They got an impressive amount of food in, and had a closing assembly where the fifth grade team leaders described going to the local food bank, taking a tour, and helping out.
I don’t have the words to adequately describe how happy and fulfilled those team leaders looked. Imagine being a fifth grader and learning, for the first time, that you can make a difference.
One of the writing exercises I do on school visits (which can be found on my website) is that I ask children to write about a time they helped someone or someone helped them.
I divide the class in two, helpers and helpees, and it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of helping going on in our world, from feeding the family dog, to teaching a friend to shoot baskets, to having a friend take you to the office when you skin a knee or bonk your head.
Sometimes a child will stare straight ahead and can’t remember any time they helped someone or had been helped. I ask about their sports activities, siblings, and pets to get to the story, that they can’t remember, about helping. I’m pretty successful at coaxing out those stories, but during my visits I’ve found a few kids who spend their after school and home time playing video games. On weekends they play video games or stream movies.
The saddest thing is that these kids know they’ve been shut out of community. They are lonely.
Elementary kids have these active minds that are always engaged, minds that can be a source of pride and frustration for teachers and parents, often simultaneously. We need to respect this biological imperative to explore the world and interact with people.
I’ve never been so exhausted (and I might as well add broke and pressed for time) as when I was working full time and had small children. I know that it is very tempting to hand a child a phone to give yourself a minute’s peace. But why not invite your child to help you in your busy life?
You won’t succeed all of the time; you don’t have to. Even a few minutes together cooking, raking leaves, setting the table, or folding laundry, will empower your child. Small moments lead to deep memories.
These small moments also, temporarily at least, unplug your child from mind-numbing electronics.
My wish for every child is to have the feeling of empowerment like the kids did at the elementary I visited. That spark of sudden knowledge and pride that your life matters to other people.
You just can’t get that from a video game. Let’s give our kids a chance to matter.