“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”    -Winston Churchill

“Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy.”      -Gautama Buddha

This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season.

From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left that day were often all alone, without loved ones visiting. Some were silent and looked like they were dead, while others cried and clung to us when we approached their beds. Some spoke gibberish, and many didn’t smell very good.                              

Our children were at times very afraid and hid behind us or begged not to go, and at other ages were more curious, comfortable, and open-hearted. They learned first by watching, singing from a distance as we held people’s hands, stroked their hair, and wiped their tears. Every year our family shared the miracle of watching perfect strangers, fellow human beings, come alive and smile or weep at the touch of a hand, the sight of a child, or the ring of a familiar song.

No matter what the age of your children, there are many wonderful books that can inspire you and your family to find ways to give back in your community. One of the gentle souls who taught children (and adults) about many positive values such as kindness, generosity, and responsibility, was the late Fred Rogers, the star for 33 years of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

What you may not know is that Rogers wrote more than 36 books, including The Giving Box: Create a Tradition of Giving with Your Children, based on the Jewish tradition of tzadakah, in which children save up coins for those in need. The book brings lessons of generosity and charity through stories from around the world, teaching how good it feels to give to those less fortunate and how even one child’s contribution can make a difference. Another inspirational choice by the same author is Many Ways to Say I Love You: Wisdom for Parents and Children from Mister Rogers which you can read for free on your kindle!

All of the world’s major religions teach that charity and service are important values to practice and to teach to our children, with the explicit message that helping others is a kind and loving thing to do, which it is. But another, equally important reason to find ways to be of service, not only now but all through the year, is because of what it teaches the giver. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and philosopher, believed that “it is one of the great compensations in life that no one can help another without helping themselves.”

Besides the joy and satisfaction that we can get from knowing that we have helped someone, simple acts of service can teach us and our children many important lessons. As a family, we faced together the reality of old age, illness and death. We shared stories of our grandparents and how they died. Serving meals at a homeless shelter, taking packages to needy children, visiting shut-ins, or singing in hospital wards can be difficult but, then again, so is life. The world will change for the better when adults teach the children the gift of giving. But be careful, it just might break your heart…open.