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November 17, 2018

Volunteering as a family: 3 ways to inspire your children this holiday season and beyond

A father's example leads the way

Volunteering Parenting
11172018_family_unsplash Photo by David Calderón/on Unsplash


Thanksgiving. Hanukkah. Solstice. Christmas. Kwanzaa. The winter season of giving, lights, celebration, gatherings and tradition is upon us. Whether we live in snowy Maine or along a sandy beach in Florida, it is a festive time. It is a season for gift giving.

“I’m so excited for Christmas!’ a young girl exclaims. “I love, love, love getting presents!”

Yes, much of the focus for young people is on the getting of gifts. As a young child, my siblings and I woke early Christmas morning for a central reason – to joyfully discover “what Santa brought us” and to open presents under the tree. As I got older, I found as much joy in watching family members unwrap a carefully selected gift I had taken the time to make, or purchase with love. I learned the joy of receiving was mirrored in a heartfelt giving.

My family extended Christmas generosity beyond our family circle as well. Winter holidays offered an opportunity to step up our volunteering or “make the world better” civic engagements – because it was Christmas. I came to truly appreciate these examples of volunteerism/service. As a girl, it was simply woven into what we did. We didn’t have much money, so our service consisted primarily of gifts made from creativity, talent and time.

For example, my father volunteered dozens and dozens of hours organizing and leading an ecumenical choir (the first of its kind in our small Utah town) consisting of Mormons, Catholics, Baptists, etc. Hundreds gathered to enjoy, and sing, beloved carols in a concert series that was free to the community. It was the one time each year that individuals in our town worshiped together across ecclesiastical divisions. I loved singing in that choir. I was so proud of my father. I loved watching the old tabernacle on Main Street fill to the brim with all of our neighbors, of all Christian denominations, for a shared community experience.

In that spirit, then, how can we instill good volunteering skills in our children so they can carry a service-oriented, civic-minded approach to their lives long after they leave our homes? Drawing upon my father’s example, here are three points to consider.


Demonstrate that volunteerism isn’t a separate activity outside of our “regular life.” Rather, it is woven into one’s regular world as well as into our celebration of sacred traditions and rituals. So, if your family has a tradition of baking holiday cookies, extend this to bake enough to share with the neighbors. One’s children will remember kitchens full of the delight of baking and then organizing plates to deliver for holiday cheer. Buddhist writer, philosopher, and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” When we volunteer our time, we are giving a precious gift and when we include our children in the task with attentiveness and compassion, we transform our families and ourselves.


Seek to volunteer your time to bring members of the greater community together. Look beyond your family’s circle of friends and get creative. How can the winter holidays inspire cross-cultural or ecumenical celebrations? In working and partnering with America’s diverse religious, ethnic, cultural, and racial richness our children can see their lives woven in the larger mosaic of our nation’s life and regard their service as something impacting the whole.


Finally, when a disaster hits, as it has in California with regard to recent massive and destructive fires, give money not goods or toiletries. Volunteer time to organize money-raising events. While it is tempting to gather teddy bears or toothpaste, those suffering from disasters will be more positively impacted when they (and quality organizations on the ground) are given the financial support needed. For example, the Center for International Disaster Information argues: “a cash donation is not only the most efficient and effective way to maximize your donation’s impact.”

At the time, I knew my father didn’t get paid for his work on the choir. Yes, he “volunteered.” But it was much more than that. The hours spent organizing our yearly Christmas choir gathering on Main Street were simply a part of how our family celebrated the season. Volunteering in this capacity was a way of life. It marked each year; it was a part of how our family honored the season.

When we volunteer in such a way, we mark our family culture with examples of leadership, creativity, innovation, and community building.

Such inspiring lessons are lifelong.

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