Teaching Kids to Care

How do we teach kids to be kind, compassionate and generous?



Illustration by Tim Williams

Mike and Haven Clancy were walking with their six kids along Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda on a cold night in 2009 when the family saw a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk. The couple’s older children, who ranged in age from 5 to 11 years old at the time, asked their parents why the man was sleeping outside, and wanted to know if they could give him a blanket.

Mike explained that the issue of homelessness was too complex to be solved by just handing out a blanket, which didn’t sit well with the kids. “They didn’t seem to think that was a very good answer,” Haven says. “They were like, ‘Yeah, but then he’d have a blanket. He wouldn’t be so cold.’ ”

The encounter resonated with the Bethesda family. Knowing they couldn’t eliminate homelessness on their own, the Clancys decided to do what they could to help. So they purchased blankets and put them in small backpacks, along with hotel toiletries that Mike, now chief operating officer for an insurance company, had brought home from his work travels.
The family then drove to the District, and the kids stayed in the car while Mike delivered the bags to homeless people he found. After that trip, the children decided they wanted to do more, so the family created Immediate Impacts, a nonprofit that provides bags of cold-weather survival gear and toiletries for homeless people in Washington, D.C.

The Clancys began holding annual drives in their Ashleigh neighborhood around Halloween to collect toiletries. They also started buying items, searching online for deals on blankets, wool socks, tarps and government-surplus military duffle bags. Over the past six years, others have donated goods and services, such as the construction of the nonprofit’s website, says Haven, a stay-at-home mom. She says Immediate Impacts gives her kids “the opportunity to think about what things people might need, think about how to go about getting them, [and] how to be involved [in] packing the bags—but also about how there are safety issues involved.” The Clancys have taught their kids, now ages 8 to 19, how mental health problems and other issues can cause people to become homeless.  


The Clancy family of Bethesda created a nonprofit called Immediate Impacts, which provides cold-weather gear and toiletries to homeless people in Washington, D.C. Photo by Darren Higgins

That first winter, the Clancys handed out 20 small backpacks. During the winter of 2014-2015, the family handed out about 130 military duffle bags. The four oldest kids, two boys and two girls, now help hand out bags when the Clancys make deliveries.

Clancy’s daughter, Emily, a freshman at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in the District, says she thought handing out the backpacks was “a cool thing to do” when the family first started the project. “Now I feel more intense about it and I really feel that this is helping people,” she says. “It’s something that I enjoy doing a lot more now.”

*  *  *

Most of us would applaud the efforts of the Clancy family—we too hope to raise children who are capable of feeling empathy and caring about the needs of others. But while we may believe in those ideals, a 2014 Harvard University report provides evidence that our words and actions may be delivering an entirely different message to our kids.  

The report, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” by the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that most middle school and high school students believe parents are more concerned about their children’s achievement or happiness than about whether they are caring people. Researchers also asked students to rank what was most important to them: high achievement, personal happiness, or caring for others. Almost 80 percent of the students named high achievement or happiness; only about 20 percent chose caring for others.

Little comparative data exists to explain why today’s kids and parents may be more focused on personal achievement and happiness than those of past generations, says Trisha Ross Anderson, program director for the Making Caring Common Project. But there’s no debate that there’s been an increase in recent decades in achievement pressure and a greater focus on children’s self-esteem at home and in the classroom.

Couple those issues with the fact that our kids are growing up in an age of rampant consumerism and in a world in which social media is likely to be used more to promote ourselves than the good we do for others, and it’s easy to understand why some of our kids may be lacking empathy.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that caring for others is important to local families. Many kids and families volunteer with charitable organizations and participate in fundraising efforts, such as the annual Pennies for Patients drives. In 2015, for example, Walt Whitman and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools raised a total of about $80,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Families collect food and clothing for local charities, set up roadside lemonade stands to raise money, and even come up with their own projects, like the Clancy children did. Some kids set up their own nonprofits to raise money or collect items, such as used sports equipment and books, or give away money they’ve received for birthdays or bar and bat mitzvahs.

Families also seek out volunteer activities so their children can complete the state graduation requirement of earning 75 service-learning hours. Though service learning is supposed to combine meaningful work with lessons about civic engagement and tie into classroom academics, some activities approved by the school system may be as simple as helping a teacher store classroom supplies or selling popcorn at a school fair. Many local private schools, which are not subject to the state requirement, have instituted their own service-learning programs.   

Local nonprofits such as A Wider Circle in Silver Spring, which provides household items, education and support for families in need, enjoy strong support from families and students who volunteer at their centers or organize donation drives. Brittany Kelly, director of volunteer programming at A Wider Circle, says the organization welcomes volunteers of all ages and even has some families who bring along young children when they come to help sort donated household goods, food and toys, and help clients pick out what they need. During the holiday season last year, drives led by students and others collected thousands of new toys that were distributed to more than 250 families.  

“Many of the families come with the intention of really helping their children understand what it means to give,” Kelly says. “Kids may not be able to understand every single aspect of poverty, but they definitely get that they may have more than someone else and that there is something they can do about it. I’ve seen that even in 5-year-olds who say, ‘I have this toy and I’m donating it and I’m putting it on the shelf and another child will have it soon.’ ”

If parents want to raise children who are caring, experts say, it’s up to the adults to make sure that their words and actions echo the values they want to instill in their kids. “It’s not enough just to hope and want your kids to be nice people,” Anderson says. “You have to actually do something.”

*  *  *

The Clancys’ mission, which started with the children’s questions about a homeless man on the street, has blossomed into a textbook example of how to teach empathy to our kids.   
“It’s kind of shown me that everybody can really help each other, even in just the simplest ways, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are,” Emily Clancy says. “It helps me realize what’s going on outside of the people that I interact with on a day-to-day basis.”

Emily was 9 when her family began its nonprofit; some of her siblings were younger. Parenting experts say it’s never too early to start teaching our kids about empathy. When children are very young, parents can begin by discussing their own thoughts about a given situation, encouraging kids to share their feelings, and then modeling appropriate reactions, says James A. Griffin, deputy chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Rockville.

As kids grow older, parents can start talking about “the difference between feeling sorry for someone and empathy, which is really putting yourself in their place to understand their feelings,” Griffin says. He says parents should take into account their children’s level of maturity when it comes to discussing topics that could be emotionally complex, such as homelessness.

“There are some kids who mature really quickly and can handle more than others, but at the same time, you just have to be really mindful to make sure what you’re doing is in the ballpark of what they’re able to handle, because even if they’re appearing to be able to handle it, they’re really probably not learning what you really want them to learn,” he says. “It’s the slow and steady development.”

Another key to raising caring kids is showing them that getting outside of themselves and helping others feels good, says Susan Crites Price, a consultant at the National Center for Family Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., where she formerly served as a vice president. Price, who lives in Friendship Heights in Northwest Washington, has written two books on how to raise caring kids—The Giving Family: Raising Our Children to Help Others, published in 2003 by the Council on Foundations, and Generous Genes, Raising Caring Kids in a Digital Age, which she self-published in 2015.

“A lot of time, kids are so self-absorbed because they have never seen people who have bigger problems than they do,” Price says. “So I think it really takes some intention, especially when your own kids are growing up with means, to make sure they get a sense of what the world is really like, and what the needs are.”

For Mark Shriver, helping others was part of daily family life while he was growing up in Potomac, and he and his wife, Jeanne, have continued to emphasize its importance as they raise their three children in Bethesda.


As part of an Eagle Scout project, Marcus Hibbeln of Silver Spring built large boxes and barrels for a nonprofit organization that trains search and rescue dogs. He's shown here with his mom, Carole Giunta. Photo by Darren Higgins

Mark’s father, Sargent Shriver, was named the Peace Corps’ first director in 1961 and was considered the architect of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Mark’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics in 1968 after creating a summer camp for kids with developmental disabilities in the backyard of their Potomac home.   

“What I learned from my mom and dad was really around the joy they had in doing their work, that they were modeling behavior that left an impression on me because it was helping people, and they were really happy doing it,” says Shriver, who is president of Save the Children Action Network in Washington, D.C. “I think some of us, myself included, try to do some community work and we’re not as joy-filled about it; it’s almost like an obligation, and I think my parents both didn’t see it as an obligation. They saw it as something that brought meaning to their life.”

In keeping with the family spirit, Shriver’s children—Molly, 18, Tommy, 16, and Emma, 11—participate each winter in a Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball league, in which they play on teams alongside kids with developmental disabilities in games at Landon School in Bethesda. They also participate in Best Buddies International, a program created by Shriver’s brother Anthony to “foster one-to-one friendships between people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities,” according to the organization’s website.

“The modeling thing is so big; that’s what we’ve tried to do without clubbing them over the head,” says Mark Shriver, who was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1995 to 2003. Still, he says, it isn’t always easy to incorporate that spirit of giving back.  

“It’s hard because there are a lot of distractions,” he says. “There are a lot of immediate gratification messages bombarding all of us, including, obviously, our kids, and there is a lot of wealth in the area. We’re struggling with it, too.”

*  *  *

Parents can counteract distracting messages and help decrease a sense of entitlement by focusing less on making sure that their kids are always happy and more on teaching them to achieve satisfaction through helping others, experts say.

Those are the goals of daily life in the Bethesda home of Nuni and Ralph Fairbanks and their eight kids, who range in age from 1 to 22. Being part of a family with eight children doesn’t allow much of an opportunity for those children to become self-absorbed because everyone needs to pitch in and help, Nuni says. And the kids know they shouldn’t expect to have the latest iPhone or the trendy clothing that their friends might have—and not because the family can’t afford those things.

“We naturally want to please our children,” Nuni says. But “we do such a great disservice when we give in to them. They grow up and start to look for happiness in all the wrong places.”

By not giving in to instant gratification, Nuni and Ralph believe their kids are learning that they are not the center of the universe—the sense of entitlement that can result from so-called helicopter parenting—and to consider others beyond themselves. For example, the older kids know they may have to give up social plans because they are needed to baby-sit younger siblings or otherwise help out at home. “When they have to sit down and help tie a kid’s shoes, then they naturally have to get outside of themselves,” Nuni says. “It’s a daily fostering of that attitude.”

The family, which moved to Bethesda a year ago after living in Potomac for 20 years, often participates in its own service projects and others organized through its church and the Boy Scouts. Nuni recalled the time when the family and other relatives joined together to spread mulch all over the play area at St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville on a freezing December day five years ago. “The kids may complain at first, but they very quickly find they feel good when they help other people,” she says. “Being in such insulated communities as Bethesda and Potomac, it’s important for them to realize we are called to serve others.”

Nuni’s second oldest son, Peter, 21, says he’s come to appreciate his parents’ approach now that he’s a young adult. A senior at the University of Maryland, he’s seen the lack of happiness among students who grew up getting everything they wanted. “I see all these kids, they don’t get what they want and they flip out,” he says.

Nuni says trying to foster the ability to feel empathy extends to even the simplest gestures, such as finding a teachable moment when one of her children isn’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party. In that case, Nuni says to her kids: “You know, you are kind of lucky to experience that. You know what it feels like, and you’re much less likely to do that to someone else.”

Teaching kids to treat others as they would like to be treated is a big part of fostering the ability to feel empathy, says Anderson of Making Caring Common. “It’s not important just to be kind in general, because the truth is most people are kind to someone—even hardened criminals and serial killers and sociopaths are generally kind to some people some of the time,” she says. “But it really is thinking about being kind to everybody, and particularly those people that are off your radar and not in your circle of concern.”

*  *  *

Providing kids with the opportunities to practice kindness and caring for others will help build a sense of empathy, experts say.

Carole Giunta and Joe Hibbeln of Silver Spring found those opportunities by involving their family in Scouting. The couple’s oldest son, Marcus, recently earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in Boy Scouting, after completing several requirements, including a major service project. That project involved building large boxes and barrels for a nonprofit organization that trains search and rescue dogs; the structures serve as hiding places that are used to teach the dogs how to find people in disaster zones.

To build the structures, Marcus organized several fellow Scouts and their dads for a backyard construction project in April 2015. Giunta says the work that morning was proof that her decision to get involved in Scouting along with Marcus and his two younger siblings years ago had been the right one.

“As I looked out my window that day, I thought, this is the spirit of Scouting, this is the spirit of giving to other people,” says Giunta, who has served as a leader of both Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. “It was very moving to see how many people turned out to help.”  

Watching her son, Carole could see that she and her husband had succeeded in instilling the lessons about responsibility and caring for others that they had sought to teach their three children.

“For me, it’s been about trying to help them be well-rounded and to think about others besides themselves, to think that achievement is important, but there are limits to that,” she says. “It feels good to be successful in school and in your work, but it also feels good to give and to help other people.”
For Marcus, now 17 and a senior at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, the lifelong lessons about responsibility and giving back had a lasting impact, whether his parents were talking about treating his siblings fairly, doing the dishes after dinner, or helping others for a service project. “They were telling me, ‘You have a role in all of this because you are a member of this community,’ ” he says.

Parenting experts say that getting kids involved in volunteering and giving back is more likely to be successful if they are allowed to follow their own interests. “When they have a role in creating their community service projects and it’s not so top-down, that makes it much more compelling to kids,” says Price, the former National Center for Family Philanthropy vice president.

Angie and Sean Willeford of Potomac began taking their son, Merrick, on annual humanitarian mission trips when he was 5 years old to “put him in environments that he’s not normally used to,” Angie says. For that first trip, the family traveled to Mexico to help residents of an impoverished village with home repairs and other projects.  

Before leaving, the Willefords told Merrick, who loved Thomas the Tank Engine, that he needed to bring some of his wooden trains to give to the children in the village. “We explained to him that these children, they don’t have anything, they play with rocks and stones in the streets and don’t have shoes,” she says.
Over the years, the Willefords have taken their son, now an eighth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, on seven annual church-sponsored humanitarian trips. “Our big hope was to try to get him to focus on external things, not just internal things—his needs and wants and desires necessarily—but to take a look at what’s around you. …What do you have versus what they have, and what can you give them that you can do without?” Willeford says.  

Last summer, at Merrick’s request, the family visited a Navajo reservation in Arizona where they had volunteered in the past. While Sean and Merrick helped with building repairs, Angie pulled kitchen duty, cooking for 75 people. The family stayed in a church on the reservation. Merrick, who plays lacrosse, had brought along 20 new lacrosse sticks donated by Nike. When he wasn’t making repairs, he ran a lacrosse clinic for the village kids.

Merrick says helping residents of the reservation made him realize how lucky he is that his family can afford to call a repairman whenever something needs to be fixed. When he’s home and sees someone in need, it reminds him of the people he met on the reservation. That’s why he wanted to return last summer, and why he hopes to go back again.

“A lot of people needed help, and I wanted to make sure they got it,” he says.

Julie Rasicot of Silver Spring is the managing editor of Bethesda Magazine’s online daily newsletter, Bethesda Beat. Her husband works with Mark Shriver at Save the Children Action Network.

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