Eleven years ago, Jenny Friedman crafted a vision for a new kind of volunteering.
Parents and other caring adults wouldn’t leave their kids at home when they performed acts of kindness. They’d bring the kids along, tapping into youngsters’ innate desire to help others.
As Friedman’s Doing Good Together (www.doinggoodtogether.org) celebrates its 10th anniversary in April, let’s commend her for inspiring family-focused outreach by hundreds of grandparents, parents and children in the Twin Cities area and beyond.
And let’s stay with her as she takes it to the next level.
As lovely as it is to rake leaves on a Sunday, collect groceries during Food Share Month or send a get-well card to an ill neighbor, these efforts alone aren’t creating the caring kids we thought we were raising.
Instilling the spirit of giving in our children requires more than an occasional project, Friedman has learned. It must become our family’s day-in, day-out philosophy, our way of life.
And it’s never too soon to start.
“Reading together is a good analogy,” said Friedman, a Minneapolis mother of three young-adult children. “We read with our kids before they can understand all the words, because we want them to know that reading is part of what the family does.
“It’s the same with giving and caring,” she said. “The values we learn in our families are the ones that are likely to stay with us — and that we pass on to our own children.”
Friedman had a hunch she needed to turn up the volume on her nonprofit’s mission well before Harvard University published results of a major study on values in 2014.
Titled “The Children We Mean to Raise,” the findings might be a shocker to many well-intentioned parents.
“Our youth’s values appear to be awry,” the study’s authors write, “and the messages that adults are sending may be at the heart of the problem.”
The researchers, part of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, surveyed 10,000 middle and high schoolers from 33 diverse schools across the country.
They found a “rhetoric and reality gap” between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities for their children, and the real messages they convey to kids on a daily basis.
What do parents say is most essential? That their children be caring.
What do kids say is most important to them? Achievement and personal happiness.
Nearly 80 percent of the youths, in fact, picked “high achievement or happiness” as their top choice. “Caring for others” was the No. 1 choice of just 20 percent.
Youths were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
The youths felt confident that their teachers also would prioritize achievement over helpfulness, although, this, too, was an incorrect assumption.
“It comes down to the fact that you have to be explicit about kindness, just as you are explicit about achievement,” said study co-author Trisha Ross Anderson. “If you ask, ‘How did you do on that test?’ also ask, ‘What did you do today that was kind?’ ”
She noted the irony that a focus on achievement doesn’t guarantee achievement, according to numerous studies. And emphasizing personal happiness prevents our kids from developing essential coping skills when faced with inevitable adversity.
But kindness? Kids who can master that are pretty much guaranteed strong relationships, a vital measure of lifelong well-being.
Friedman appreciates that this is a tall order.
“Parents aren’t the bad guys,” she said. “There are so many pressures on them to have their children succeed in academics and in sports. And there are the resources available to help them, from tutoring to soccer camps. But there is not the same pressure — or the fun, simple tools — to teach our children caring.”
That dearth was Friedman’s impetus to create Doing Good Together a decade ago. “I was doing this with my kids and it seemed to have such value to them,” she said. “Service was a hands-on way to show how much it mattered to care for one another.”
Family service fairs held at schools, businesses and in religious circles represent one hallmark of Friedman’s outreach. Multiple activity stations offer projects, from making sandwiches for a homeless shelter to creating dog toys for orphaned animals.
A service fair held in South Dakota recently brought in 600 people. “It’s not that these projects aren’t great, because they are,” Friedman said. “But we need to draw them out over time. We need to be more intentional.”
To help families do that, Friedman is creating events and updating her website with ideas for making giving a daily habit.
It’s not as daunting as it might seem.
Writing checks to charities? Let your children see you doing it or, better, ask for their input about which charities to support.
Keep contributing to annual food drives. But also keep a donation box in your kitchen, into which you place nonperishable items every week of the year.
Pick up five pieces of trash every time you go to the park.
Share half your cookies with your neighbor each time you bake.
Expand your kindness circle to include less obvious recipients, such as the bus driver or lunch lady.
And remember to talk to your children about why you are doing these acts day in and day out.
“Preach what you practice,” Friedman said. “It doesn’t take a lot of extra time before these efforts become the rhythm of your life.”