Like most parents, I’d like to think my son is a good person and has a good heart. But is having a good heart enough? How do I teach him to take action? To not just know what is right, but do what is right? Taking action, following through – those concepts can be tough for adults, so why is it important that I teach this to my youngster?

As parents, we are inundated with content. We are told that it is absolutely important information to teach our children, that it’s critical they learn it all to become well-functioning adults. For example, teaching “grit” in our children has become a hot topic. This new buzzword for perseverance, tenacity, or resilience, assumes that the child was taking some action in the first place. But how can we encourage them to take that first step?

Research published by the Psychological Science found that children as young as 5 were susceptible to the bystander effect. They found that these kids were more likely to provide help to a person who was alone than they were in the presence of a bystander who could render the same help.

How do we encourage them to take action regardless of bystanders? When their classmate is bullied? When they notice that they’re not recycling within their house like they do in school? How to respond when they see, hear, or learn something that makes them feel?

Last year, my then 9-year old son, S overheard a phone conversation. In it I mentioned that I didn’t have enough money to buy a phone charger. Now, as you know, “not having enough money” does not always mean you don’t actually physically have money. Instead, it can translate into: “I don’t want to spend the money on this particular item right now.”

However, between misunderstanding my conversation and a general tendency to take words very literally, S believed I truly didn’t have the money. After he’d gone to bed, I discovered an envelope on top of my pillow with a handful of his prized dollar coins with a note written on the envelope.

He wrote: “Thank you for being such a good mom.” That note alone was enough to make a mother’s heart melt into a little puddle. Yep, believe it: I Instagrammed, Facebooked, and Snapchatted that adorable note.

Recently he had lost a tooth. The tooth fairy provided him some money, in an envelope under his pillow. Knowing this, I figured that he was just replicating the behavior, despite my not losing any teeth. I was also not in the questioning mood at the time, remember – my heart was in a puddle on the floor.

In no way did I connect my phone conversation with his gift. However, the next morning when we woke up, he mentioned the envelope, along with the comment: “I hope you can buy a charger now!”

This whole exchange stunned me.

At 9, he discovered his ability to do something, to fix a problem he perceived.

Normally, I would never accept money from my child. This is especially true because I’m typically the one that gave him the money in the first place. However, in this case, it made him feel good to give. So, I thanked him and accepted.

You may wonder, but what does that one little event say about his overall concept of social responsibility? Just how altruistic do you expect my kid(s) to be?

I’ll tell you. It is an extremely important indicator demonstrating his ability to recognize his power to do. To solve. Fix. Change. 

The ability to take action is more important than any other leadership quality. The ability to do something. 

Here are 3 quick steps you can use to inspire your kids to be action takers 

1.) Teach them to recognize opportunities in which they could take action

Point out opportunities as they occur. Just like S taking everything literally, he also needs things spelled out. These opportunities could be as simple as pointing out that they could hold the door open for a stranger, and then specifically asking him/her to go open the door.

It could be commenting on how much it has snowed, and mentioning how nice it would be if the mailman didn’t have to stand in the snowbank while opening your mailbox?

2.) Repeat, repeat, repeat

Showing S the opportunity and then specifically leading him to an action allows him to recognize that same opportunity can pair with that same action in the future. Much like reminding him to brush his teeth each night, this may take 5, 10, 1000 reminders before he fully remembers.

But, also, just like brushing his teeth, he will learn.

3.) Recognize each action for what it is

Many adults take action and give back to their community because it feels good. However, people give for different reasons, people care about different things, and volunteer recognition is an entire sub-section of volunteer management.

The same holds true for kids. They may feel good about what they’ve done, but praise helps to amplify those feelings. It reinforces the positivity associated with that action, which inspires them to repeat it in the future.

To sum it up:

Now, you might say, “how does holding the door open teach social responsibility?” Or, “in our family, shoveling the sidewalk is a chore.” That may well be the case. The deciding factor is intentionality. Is the shoveling occurring because they had no choice? Is it required?

Despite what it may sound like, instilling a socially responsible mindset isn’t about going somewhere to help fix other people’s problems. It’s not just doing nice things for others.

It’s about accepting responsibility to care about others and recognizing that the choices we make affect others. It’s about choosing to be aware. It’s about realizing that each individual has within them the capacity to take action on behalf of others.

Now do I know my son will always take action?

Absolutely not.

Do I expect him to?

Absolutely not.

But, as evidenced by his gift, I know that he knows how to take action, and can recognize opportunities when they present themselves.

And we work on it. Together. A lot.

This is not something I expect him to learn by himself.

Let me repeat. This is not something I expect him to learn by himself.

Together, we participate in a scouting organization, Navigator’s USA, that fosters social responsibility and seeks opportunities for youth to take action. What are some activities in which you can participate with your child(ren)?

Here are some quick references to get you started:

Just remember:

  1. Consistently work to model the behavior – find opportunities, take action
  2. Work together – this is a perfect opportunity to build your relationship
  3. Recognize and praise your youngster for the actions he/she takes
  4. Have patience – repeat, repeat, repeat…