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One of the most difficult things parents have to teach their children is empathy. It can take time and a certain amount of maturing before it becomes a trait they embrace and practice on their own.

Volunteering is one form of empathy, and it isn’t an act that can only be done around the holidays. Getting involved can teach many important values, including empathy, self-esteem and civic responsibility. It is also a way to explore new interests. Studies have found that volunteering can also lead to lower death rates and improve mental health.

To help your children better understand this and learn empathy, volunteer throughout the year. Here are some ways to do that:

Charity Party
Instead of your child accepting gifts at their birthday party, ask them if they’d like to have attendees donate to a charity you support. Or give on behalf of the kids instead of giving party favors.

Instead of receiving gifts at their birthday party, kids can ask their guests to bring new or used toys to donate to shelters or churches, or for other donations that can help other kids. The nonprofit Milk + Bookies offers ideas on how to host parties for guests to donate books to needy kids.

Volunteer at a Food Bank
Donating food and time at food banks is common around the holidays, but they need help the rest of the year as well. Because food banks are nonprofits that rely on volunteers, many have family-friendly events that make it easy for children of all ages to attend.

Be sure to check with your local food bank for requirements for young volunteers. The city of Alameda Food Bank’s warehouse in California may not be safe for children, so it requires that volunteers be at least 12 years old and that volunteers between ages 12-15 be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Start a Helping Jar
With coins found on the sidewalk, leftover lunch money or any spare change they have, kids can start a “helping jar” to save money in that they can donate throughout the year.

The money can either be donated directly to their favorite charity, or they can buy travel-sized toiletries to give to shelters or the homeless.

Care for Pets
Local animal shelters and pet adoption agencies often need help from volunteers. With the supervision of a parent, even toddler and preschoolers can play with kittens or dogs at an animal shelter and take them on walks.

Older kids can walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, or a family can take their pet to a nursing home to cheer up patients.

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