How Do We Make Caring Commonplace?

By Barbara Gruener

Early last week, a recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education caught my eye. “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Message Adults Are Sending About Values” reported that most young people in a recent survey said their parents and teachers rank achievement and happiness over caring for others.

I immediately thought of my friend Sheila Sjolseth. She’s a Harvard grad and the founder of Pennies of Time, a resource that helps parents get their kids involved in community service. With that initiative — and the way she walks her talk — she and her boys have been on a kindness crusade for as long as I’ve known her. So I called, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about the report — and about what she has found effective in nurturing a heart of service in her two young boys.

Tell us about the study and why it is important for us to take note of the findings.

Sheila: Well, the report is based on a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students. The survey sought to gauge what is important to them and their parents. Answers ranged from academic achievement to popularity to fairness. Researchers also surveyed school staff and asked similarly phrased questions related to how important specific areas were to them and to the students’ parents.

Here are some important points that parents and educators should understand:

  • Eighty percent of the students say they believe their parents rank achievement or happiness over caring for others. The same percentage of students believes their teachers value achievement over caring.
  • The report highlights this point several times: “Students were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement on our survey: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.'” (1)
  • Another data point that jumped out at me was that two-thirds of the students say their parents and peers would rank achievement over caring for others.

What about the teachers and school personnel in the study? What did they think?

Sheila: The data lined up the with numbers from the students. About 80% of the adults that work in schools say that parents rank both achievement and happiness over caring.

Interestingly, the report cites several other reports showing that parents do want their children to be caring, even rating it above academic achievement.

This is what is powerful about this study: It highlights a disparity between what parents care about most versus what students believe their parents think is most important. Because of this, the researchers have put out several recommendations. I walked away from reading the research with what I consider a call of action for parents, school personnel and community members.

 Making Meaning Common Project Call to Action The Children We Main to Raise

Help us understand why doing something kind every day is important.

Sheila: Our habits and attitudes are built upon daily, repeated actions. We want our kids, our students, to build up great habits. I explain it to my own kids that it is like building up our invisible muscles. Sure, we need strong bodies and strong physical muscles to be able to help, but we need to build those internal caring muscles that help our eyes and ears recognize need and then know how to problem-solve to meet those needs.

Daily? Is that doable? Well, I’ve been working on daily acts of kindness and caring experiences with my own boys for almost two years. It is doable if you are reasonable with your planning and expectations.

What do you mean? Doesn’t it take a long time?

Sheila: My goal, each day, is to spend 15 minutes on an element of serving others with my own kids. They are young. We started this when they were 3 and 5 years old. So, the key here is to try to have good vibes going on during the short interaction. If we are all tired and cranky, I stop before we are finished and regroup the next day. It isn’t about forcing kids to be good. It is about teaching them what serving others is about and how to do it. I know that it is in the small, consistent experiences and acts of kindness that true caring development will happen, not through grandiose, one-time acts.

How do you spend those 15 minutes?

Sheila: First, we try and see if there is someone we know that needs some help, some extra love. Recently, we recognized that a neighbor was sick, unable to do daily life tasks. So, for over a week we did simple things like bringing in trash cans, asking to walk her dog, bringing her mail and her newspaper to her door. If no one comes to mind, we complete a portion of a larger service project or a simple act of kindness for a stranger.

Because we do it every day, we seek out ways to help others that aren’t expensive. I have to live within a budget like all other families I know. (To be frank, my kids don’t really get much out of donation dumps, where they just give money.) After a couple of weeks, the daily act was just habit, part of the routine. Don’t get me wrong, we have down days, and on those days when I am sick or we are just tired, I rely on a book or a conversation about being kind and caring for others. In fact, it is in the quiet moments of reflection and conversation that you see just how incredible kids can be in caring for others, recognizing need, and developing deep levels of empathy.

How would you suggest busy families start?

Sheila: First, decide to make it a priority and put it on your calendar. Your family may decide that daily is too much. OK, that is no reason to not start any kind of consistent routine with this. Choose weekly instead.

Second, start small. Many families balance several activities and age ranges among their kids. Focus on success with smaller experiences of service. No one, including the parents, will want to go out helping someone again if the first time doing this the group ends up tired, uncomfortable and ending with everyone griping at one another.

Third, pick something that they kids have an interest in doing. Plan it with them and really try to align it with something they already enjoy doing. For example: My boys love being secret ninjas. So, for the first bit, we approached all acts of kindness as if we were secret ninjas out to take care of others. It was hilarious watching my youngest army crawl through the grass to leave a treat at the neighbor’s door!

I have found this last tip to be critical: Allow the time and space to reflect with your kids on what they just did, why they did it. How did it affect the person being helped? What did the kids think of the experience? How did they feel at the end? Reflecting on the experience makes it more than just another “to do” struck off the list. It elevates it to a meaningful experience that you think back on and learn from.
Pennies of Time Tips for Starting Daily Acts

The amazing thing, Barbara, is that when families start doing this on a consistent basis, the kids will find DAILY things to do that reflect the emphasis that their parents have put on helping others.

Where do you get your ideas?

Sheila: From people around me, from my kids, from working with nonprofits. If you need ideas, I encourage you to pull up my site Pennies of Time: Teaching Kids to Serve and go look. There are so many acts of kindness and service projects that kids can do.
5 Acts of Kindness from Pennies of Time

Do you plan everything or do your kids ever plan what you will do?

Sheila: In the beginning as we started, I planned the experiences mainly because was learning how to do this, learning about needs in the community that I wasn’t aware of. But I actively included them. And then, a few weeks into it, the boys started pointing out needs to me. After the third day doing this, in fact, Big Brother (my oldest son) ran around the house and brought me all of his money he had hiding. “This needs to go to kids that are homeless,” he explained. Well, I then had to figure out where on earth the homeless shelter was and how to best teach my kids about their needs. Another example is that after making homeless care kits (small hygiene kits in a sock), Little Brother became the best “person in need” locator.

Elaborate, please.

Sheila (ducking head under the table, a bit embarrassed): One day, we passed someone on the side of the road. Little Brother said, “Mom, pull over and see if he needs a care kit.” Well, I explained that we were too busy, and we’ll be right back to ask him. We passed by him, and Little Brother became very upset because I didn’t “‘wisten to” his idea.

We did go back, but the man was gone. Little Brother was LIVID! “Mom, you didn’t help that man in need!” Since that day, I have never ignored him when he pointed out someone in need. I recognized that it was OK for us to be a bit late to something in an effort to help another.

This was when we were really learning to walk the talk in our daily actions. I learned my lesson to better honor the impressions that my children have in recognizing need and getting out of the way so that they can “action-ize” their own ideas. Sometimes that is hard for me because it may be an idea that doesn’t really seem like a critical one to follow through in doing. But when I shut my “adult” voice up and let them honor the feelings of reaching out to others with action, we have the sweetest experiences, even better than I could have structured.

A home-to-school connection is key to whole-child success. How might what you’re doing as a family translate into something doable in a school setting?

Sheila: Most of what I have talked about is from the perspective of a parent. But teachers can do that as well. Principals can support their school staff in developing a kindness climate in the school and the classroom and support teachers in efforts to develop caring student behaviors.

Barbara, I think that your book “What’s Under Your Cape?” does a marvelous job of showing how to do that because you’ve integrated real-life stories from the schoolhouse with hands-on suggestions about how to engage students in intentional and meaningful service projects. Encourage students to research and find out what needs aren’t being met in your community, let them decide on whom they want to help and that will naturally lead into how they want to help. And always make time at the end of a project for that reflection piece. Ask: What was that experience like for you? How did it challenge or stretch you? What, if anything, might you do differently next time? What is your advice for others who want to do something like this?

You know, kids are fun and they’re crazy sometimes. With that, you have to just go with it and know that as you are consistently doing this with your kids or your students, they are learning to care, to love and to serve. They will never misunderstand, like the students in the survey, what is important to their parents or teachers. They will know how to be kind and value that in others.

Other articles written about “The Children We Mean to Raise” study:

Sheila at Pennies of TimeSheila Sjolseth, the primary writer for Pennies of Time, has spent her adult life focused on education. She earned her B.S. in Special Education from The University of Texas at Austin. After teaching in a variety of settings and grade levels, she went on to earn her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since then, she has served in a variety of roles in diverse settings: special education teacher in a child psychiatric unit, director of a nonprofit, director for a charter school, child advocate, and at the U.S. Department of Education in charge of programming for children who are at-risk. Currently, you can find her either: hunched over a computer, helping not-for-profits serve children who are at-risk, or, she is on the phone mentoring someone on how to find a job. She is the mother of two young boys and is the voice of “Pennies of Time” where she shares the adventures of serving with her boys. You can find her on Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and Facebook.

Thank you, Sheila, for sharing your spark for service with us and igniting a movement to spend just a Penny of Time every day thinking with our hearts and sprinkling kindness around. The world is a better place with kindhearted kids like yours leading the way.