“Look for the helpers,” said the beloved Mr. Rogers and this simple but profound line has become a balm for times when the world feels off-kilter. Knowing there are helpers that can ease our times of chaos offers hope and serves as an inspiration for children. Looking for these helpers allows kids to witness all the best things we hope to teach them; bravery, empathy, compassion, and knowing how to offer a helping hand when people need it the most. Children seem to know early on how vital these roles are and perhaps this is one of the reasons why they begin playing doctor and are fascinated by firefighters at such a young age.
Studies have shown that helping others can make us feel better and is good for our overall spirits. Psychologists call the boost people get when helping, “the helper’s high” and believe philanthropic acts create endorphins that light up the pleasure centers of our brains. So how do we reinforce this message of helping to make little ones go from becoming a tiny helper to a big helper as they get older. To modify Mr. Rogers' statement a bit, it seems the best way is to not just look for the helpers, but look for the opportunities for helping.
Create a Home Filled with Helping Opportunities
The desire to help starts very early, in fact child psychologists have determined that children as young as 6 months old begin to develop empathy. Perhaps you’ve noticed this innate desire that children have to help when almost as soon as your baby learns how to eat from a spoon, they are eagerly trying to feed you! Little kids often want to help with all kinds of chores around the house from folding laundry, to putting dishes away, to feeding the pets. Kids want to be helpful, and although sometimes having them help you will add some time and maybe even some mess, giving them a chance to do a job, being thankful for their help, and not re-doing what they do will make them feel valued, helpful, and will make them continue to want to help in other bigger ways. If they feel proud of their contributions at home, this will lead them to be helpers in their world.
Helping Friends and Family
Doing good can also take place with small interactions between friends and families. By checking in with each other in kind and caring ways, we are modeling to our kids the power of a well-placed word and how little moments of kindness can help shift the mood. To model helping within your family, you can have everyone come up with ideas for something nice to do for each family member, whether it be baking a cake or going for a bike ride with dad. After these moments, take some time as a family to talk about how good it felt to help the people you love most, because this simple act allows children to see themselves as the kind of person who helps and makes life better for those around them.
Creating Community Helpers
Once your child is hooked on helping, it’s time to look for simple activities that encourage this spirit outside of your home. Start small with activities like holding doors for people, sharing kind words with a friend, cleaning up garbage on the beach or in a park, or bringing in mail when neighbors go on trips. Look to your child’s interests to add other helping ideas. Are they animal-lovers? If so, pet shelters always need help. Do they love to draw? If so, make drawings for older people who are lonely. Note that when finding helping activities with younger kids, make sure to suggest projects that they can complete easily so they feel successful.
Here is a brief list of some other simple ideas for helping:
- Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or food bank
- Help neighbors by watering their garden or house plants
- Collect bottles and cans and donate the money to a favorite charity
- Write a handwritten note to cheer someone up
- Have your kids help you make a meal or a few snacks for a family with a new baby or for someone who is sick.
Modeling the Helping Spirit
Another valuable way to teach your children to be helpers is by doing more helping yourself. Whether you actively volunteer or simply make it a point to notice the generosity that you see in the people around you, this type of modeling, also known as observational learning, can teach children skills without them ever actually doing anything. By witnessing their parents help the world in small ways, children will take notice and begin to model the same behavior.
Working together, families can create a spirit of helping and celebrate that even the smallest of gestures can make a big difference in the world and in other people’s lives. Before you know it, they will be looking to themselves as a helper, making you, the world, and the legacy of Mr. Rogers proud!