Eat your vegetables. Use your manners. Tidy up. Be nice to your brother… Every day we do our best to sculpt our children into happy, healthy adults. And especially for Kiwis, growing up with a good dose of worldliness and compassion is an important part of that mix.
But how do you bridge the gap between helping mum with the dishes, and helping children who have no food on their plates at all? How do you connect such young, innocent minds with caring for those whose challenges are so far removed from their own?
As Chief Executive at ChildFund New Zealand, I’ve spent more than a decade getting my own head around the dramatic differences between the childhood I and my own boys have enjoyed in New Zealand, and that of hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world. It often seems unfathomable and terribly unfair to me, so I can only imagine how it looks through a child’s eyes.
And perhaps that’s the thing – kids are happy, resilient little souls for the most part and that’s what we need to nurture and plug-in to. “If only you knew how many kids in the world won’t have dinner tonight” only gets you a sheepish look from a five-year-old trying to comprehend why life without broccoli is so bad. The aim is inspiration, helping your child become enthused and confident about making a difference to one person, or the whole world, no matter how small they are.
So, how? Here are a few of my own tips…
Start listening to your children: It’s never too early to start having conversations with your child about how they view the world, and what they think is right, or wrong. Kids are optimistic – they see the world as one of possibility. Ask questions and then stop: listen to what they have to say. I often showed my youngest pictures from my trips to ChildFund communities, and at one stage he thought I knew everyone from Africa including Usain Bolt. You may not have that at your disposal, but exploring the world map, watching a documentary or Googling other lands together are great ways to kick things off.
Small acts of kindness: There are opportunities in our community every day to offer small acts of kindness – pick a flower for Nana, drop a coin in the donation bucket, bake a thank you gift for your teacher. The list goes on and on. Keep an eye out for little ways to show your child the joy of giving.
Change things up at Christmas: There are a number of organisations including ChildFund that offer alternative gifting options. Again this is about having conversations with your children, but it’s also easy and inexpensive. Hop online, look through the range and have a chat about how $7 worth of drought resistant seeds will help feed a child in Kenya, or how a $17 mosquito net might save a child’s life.
Want what you have: The ideas above make sense at Christmas, a key time for giving. But it goes beyond this. Challenge yourself and ask “Is this a priority right now? Do I really need to buy this?” You don’t have to become pious, just changing your mindset away from thinking that more is better.
Slow down. Unplug: It’s easy to get caught up in our fast-paced world, where we are always wired to a phone, a screen, or even the radio in our car. Gandhi was onto something when he said “There’s more to life than increasing its speed”. It’s initially unsettling, but unplugging and slowing things down, taking time out to connect with your family and nature is deeply energizing.
Consider sponsorship: Only just last month I met one of my own sponsored children, Zacarias in Timor Leste, for the first time. My own children are just a year older and younger than 8-year-old Zacarias and having him as part of our family and sharing stories of how our support has benefited him, and his entire family, has been an invaluable opportunity for us all to grow and learn. William and Michael are genuinely intrigued with what life is like in Timor Leste and in Kenya where we sponsor Kukulai. They love reading their letters and swapping drawings.
But no matter what, from personal experience I can say the most important thing is to lead by example. My mother always said “It’s better to have a big heart than to be a big shot,” and that has always stuck with me. Despite growing up with privilege and coming of age in the hedonistic 80s, mum’s wise words eventually sunk in and I decided it was time to ‘give’ rather than ‘get’. And it puts a smile on my face every day.
Once civil engineer, come corporate marketer, Paul Brown has been Chief Executive of ChildFund New Zealand for the last 10 years and describes it as the best job in the world. He has two school-aged boys and his family sponsor two children including Zacarias in Timor Leste and Kukulai in Kenya. To learn more about ChildFund New Zealand visit www.childfund.org.nz