THE BOOK OF LIFE - Simple Acts
3:23AM Jun 12, 2019
very young ages
COLD OPEN: "I absolutely believe that every act of service, every act of kindness is is important. And nothing is wasted, that all of these things are sort of drops in the bucket of your child's emerging character, and that ultimately, putting good stuff out into the world has a ripple effect no matter what."
THEME MUSIC, INTRO: This is the book of life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Simple Acts, The Busy Family's Guide to Giving Back, is designed to make repairing the world easy. I spoke with the very enthusiastic author, Natalie Silverstein, by Skype at her home in New York, about why volunteering is good for children, and how parents can keep it manageable.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Natalie, tell us about your organization, Doing Good Together.
Natalie Silverstein: Sure. Well, I'm the volunteer coordinator in New York City for Doing Good Together. It is a national nonprofit. It's based in Minneapolis. It was started about 15 years ago by a woman named Jenny Friedman. It provides resources, book recommendations, things that you can do with your family. So I was the first city-specific volunteer coordinator here in New York City. But since then, we've added seven or eight other communities, and I curate a listing of family friendly volunteer opportunities in New York City. And so through that work, I started going out and speaking to school groups and PTAs, temples and churches, Girl Scout troops, community groups, and I really started connecting with a lot of other parents who were interested in figuring out ways to do service with their children. And it's often very difficult to find family friendly volunteer opportunities. So I clearly saw a need for a resource guide. I felt like parents wanted to do this really important work, but were really looking for a little guidance and a little nudge and some inspiration. And so I wrote Simple Acts.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Terrific! I want to ask you kind of an obnoxious question. Have you ever seen the show Adam Ruins Everything?
Natalie Silverstein: No, I haven't.
Heidi Rabinowitz: So there's this popular show. It's on Netflix. It started as a YouTube series, and it's called Adam Ruins Everything. Adam will take some well known concept and he will break it down and myth bust, and tell you the truth behind it. So he has an episode about giving. So Adam ruins giving by telling you the things you don't know about what happens when you give your time, your money, your stuff. And in this episode, they explained that the most helpful thing that we can actually do is give money to charitable organizations. So you've just written this guide to not only giving money but doing things and... and giving of yourself and gathering materials to donate. So what do you think of this concept that giving money is actually the best way to help?
Natalie Silverstein: He's probably not wrong. If we look at this from a purely economic standpoint, most organizations need money to do the important work that they do. If you are volunteering to fundraise, obviously, writing a check, that's often very helpful. Many people can't necessarily write a check. And so both in terms of my listings for Doing Good Together, and the book, I tried to not focus on that piece, I tried to really focus on this issue of raising compassionate and grateful children who care about others and who care about the world around them. It's really a parenting guide to talk about the ways that service and acts of kindness are important and formative and foundational to the way that your children become kind and caring and compassionate adults. I totally agree with him that the nuts and bolts of this work is such that if you take your children to a food pantry, for example, you work on a Sunday morning stocking shelves, that work is important, but that food pantry probably needs money more than anything else. But that does not diminish the value that your family has given to that space, the connections that they've made, perhaps the relationships that they started to build, and also for your family to create warm memories together to appreciate what you have, to learn and teach some really important life lessons. I'm just a firm believer in volunteering and service. There's a tremendous amount of research that volunteers are healthier, they are happier. Kids who volunteer are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, they do better in school, they have better self confidence, they are more grateful. I'm a believer that expressing gratitude actually makes you feel more grateful and makes you feel better about yourself. So I think it's a win-win situation. And I absolutely believe that every act of service, every act of kindness is important. And nothing is wasted, that all of these things are sort of dropped in the bucket of your child's emerging character, and that ultimately, putting good stuff out into the world has a ripple effect no matter what.
Heidi Rabinowitz: So the subtitle of Simple Acts: The Busy Family's Guide to Giving Back gives us a pretty good idea of what this book is about. Obviously, people need to read the book, but just briefly, give us an idea how busy families can add giving back into their schedules. And what's a really easy starter activity to get families going.
Natalie Silverstein: The goal of the book was really to help people start where they are with what they're already doing. So if you're already planning a birthday party, for example, I have a chapter on planning a birthday party with purpose. So a pajama party for example, instead of just doing an arts and crafts project, the kids can create pillowcases to donate to a charity that's going to fill bags for foster children. Or you can ask for guests to bring donations of pajamas for The Pajama Program. So birthday parties, playdates, family vacations, holidays, family milestones, these little kind of moments in life when you can take a second and say, "I'm really grateful for this moment, I want to celebrate it and want to do something nice for someone else to share our joy," and also creating family traditions around service. So if you have a lemonade stand every summer, consider having a lemonade stand benefit Alex's Lemonade Stand, which is for Childhood Cancer Research, or filling backpacks when you go to Staples for your own children, think about filling a backpack for a child who doesn't have. So you know, creating these small family traditions around kindness, things that can be incorporated into this stuff that you're already doing.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Your book suggests starting to give back while children are still too young to understand it, for instance, planting a tree in honor of a new baby. Why start so young?
Natalie Silverstein: I think it sets the tone for your family. I think it says: this is how we're going to approach the world, we're going to take our joy, we're going to share it with other people. And it begins to build on itself. These become traditions, these become stories that we share about, you know, when you were born, when you took your first steps, when you lost your first tooth. It's not this big deal, we're not going to fly off to Africa to build a school, you know, we're not going to spend every weekend all day at the soup kitchen volunteering, we're going to do what we can in the community when we can. But we're also going to just treat other people kindly and with respect, we're going to make eye contact with the person holding the door for us and thank them, we're going to take a little bit of change that we get in the coffee shop and put it in the tip jar, we're just going to demonstrate for our children a role model for them, that this is just the way our family operates in the world. And so I think that that can start at very, very young ages, appreciating that a very young child may not understand what they're doing. But if you continue to do that work year over year over year, those are the things that kids will remember. Consistently, when you ask older children what are the things that they remember from childhood, they don't remember the one-off big deal event or trip or something. They remember the treasured family traditions that were repeated over and over and over again. So if your family chooses to, for example, volunteer in a soup kitchen every Thanksgiving morning, before you celebrate with your entire family later in the day, that will be the thing they remember about Thanksgiving.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Can you talk about the Jewish roots of this book, if it has any, and how you went about creating a guide that would be welcoming to readers of all backgrounds?
Natalie Silverstein: One of the motivators on this was really the fact that my three children were enrolled in a Reform Jewish Day School in Manhattan, and the service learning component, the notion of tikkun olam, this is our responsibility as Jews to give back to the world, to repair the world... that was foundational to the mission of the school. And so from very young ages, I remember clearly, in kindergarten there was a project where the tzedakah box collection, every Friday, just a few coins; at the end of the semester, we would go to the bank to count the money, we would go to the grocery store to buy the dry goods, and then we would go to the local food pantry and drop it off. So this type of work that's done as part of the curriculum at my kids' school was super inspiring to me. So my children would come home with all these wonderful projects and ideas and things that they were doing. And I just was really inspired. I wanted to partner with the school, in creating an environment where my kids felt empowered to do this type of work, both at school and at home. I really do believe that my children being at that school really helped me to create that mission for my family. And so in writing the book, it's not a Jewish book, it's a parenting book. I've worked really hard to research all faiths, all different holidays, you know, I was very inclusive of organizations from across a variety of different faiths and also many, many secular organizations. Because I wanted people to feel like this was a book for everyone. My editor really encouraged me to include holidays that are not even celebrated in the United States because perhaps someone in a foreign country will get ahold of this book and and will really want to incorporate these things with their own children. So I mean, the concepts are universal. And I think that that's what's most important.
PROMO: Hey, Book of Life listeners, Heidi here. I interrupt this podcast with an important announcement. I'll be hosting a book of life live show in Woodland Hills, California, near Los Angeles on June 17, 2019, at 5:30pm as part of the Association of Jewish Libraries 54th annual conference. Guests include Joni Sussman of Kar-Ben Publishing, and author/illustrator/musician Barney Saltzberg, famous for his book, Beautiful Oops. The live show is free. Conference goers get in automatically. All others must RSVP by June 10 to be admitted. Email me at BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com for details. Now, back to your regularly scheduled podcast. END PROMO
Heidi Rabinowitz: Something I struggle with as a librarian serving preschool children, is how to explain injustice to them. We spend so much time teaching them to play fair that it feels like a betrayal of trust to tell them the grown ups haven't built them a fair world. So when you volunteer to help those in need, how do you explain to young children about social injustices like poverty or homelessness?
Natalie Silverstein: Well, that's an excellent question. And I get it a lot. And I really urge families with young children to start with a story, with a children's book. Doing Good Together, the website has a really wonderful resource guide. Perhaps there's 20 or 25 different subcategories of book lists. They have every topic, so immigration, homelessness, poverty, social justice, you know, political activism, you can click on the listing, and then it has all these wonderful books you can use to introduce the topic in a really gentle way. So my first suggestion in the Playdates with Purpose chapter is to start with a story. And then do kind of a hands on project and then allow at the end for time for the kids to ask questions, give some reflections, you know, kind of leave some space for kids to think about what they've just done. What might they like to do in the future? How might they like to continue to deal with this issue? Also kind of follow what the children are interested in. As they get older, they're going to hear things on the news, they're going to see things happening in their communities, they're going to learn about things in school that concern them, the environment, etc. and really take that and say, Okay, well, how would you like to try and make a difference? What can we learn online or through research at the library? You know, how are ways that we can get involved? What's a small thing that our family can do to make a difference? I think when you empower kids with that, and you pick up on their interests, they're going to normally and naturally be more engaged in the work just inevitably going to be more successful. So I'm a big believer in books. I'm so glad that you mentioned your a librarian because I think that that's a wonderful way to engage young children in dealing with some of these topics, and then just figuring out a really positive way that you can approach it and respond to it.
Heidi Rabinowitz: So kids can be unpredictable....
Natalie Silverstein: Amen to that.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Yeah. Have you ever had a volunteering gig with kids go wrong?
Natalie Silverstein: Oh, sure. millions of times. Of course, you know, you can naively sort of jump into a volunteer opportunity that perhaps kids are a little too young for and can't really handle. And so I have a bunch of sidebar little stories in the book. But you know, one of them was particularly upsetting. And it was a real lesson learned for me. You know, my young child and her little friend and I had worked with the mom, and we were talking a lot about how, you know, the birthday parties happen, and piles and piles of gifts are in the corner, many of them duplicative. And so perhaps we could find an organization where we might be able to go and visit some children, and perhaps donate some of these toys to children who don't have. And so we did, we made it, we made a nice little pile of things, and we gathered from other friends, a little bit of a toy drive. We went to an after school program, we had a lovely visit: we drew with the kids, we sang songs, and we had a wonderful time. I should probably mention that the kids were five or six years old, so very young. And so we had this bag of toys, but we gave it to the director and we said, you know what, why don't you just put it in the closet. And we were getting ready to leave. And the woman in charge of the program said, You know what, the kids are having such a great time. Why don't you let your kids hand out these toys. And it was a disaster. So the bags open. And it's not 15 of the same toy, right? It's 15 or 20 different things, big things and little things. And so the kids who were receiving the toys were upset because who wanted what; my child and her friend were upset because there was this us-and-them and handing them toys... It was just a mess. There were tears all around. So a lot of lessons learned there. My daughter and her friend were too young, this notion of sharing our things, that we have two of this toy so perhaps we could give this one away. In the moment, it was really, really hard for a five year old child, I wouldn't make that mistake again, myself. And that was my third child, I want to point out I'd already been parenting for like 12 years at that point. And I messed, I messed it up. So you know, things happen. Kids are certainly unpredictable, situations are unpredictable. You kind of hope for the best, and you don't give up. I think you have to keep a sense of humor, you know, as with anything with kids, right? Just roll with the punches, stay positive, keep smiling, just recognize that you're trying to do something good. And it might not be perfect, but it's certainly worthwhile.
Heidi Rabinowitz: From all the many suggestions for giving back in this book, can you name one that is the most creative or unusual or, or just your favorite?
Natalie Silverstein: You know, listen, I try and encourage folks to not make this such a big deal. One of the simplest things that I talk about is when young children are sitting and waiting for their meals, if you have that stack of construction paper and crayons and markers there, instead of just doodling or coloring in a coloring book, you can encourage them to make cards. And so depending on the time of year, it is might be Valentine's that you can bundle up and send to our active duty military or to a local senior center. It could be cards for children in the hospital, there are organizations that collect these cards, and you can get pre-printed things, you can download wonderful stuff from the internet that you can just print out and then fold and the kids can color it in. And then if they're too young to write the message, you can help with the message. You know, I talked a lot about this in the book about writing letters, writing poetry, leaving it on their windshields, you know, for strangers, writing notes, when you're traveling with your kids and leaving them for the folks who take care of your room, for the waitress who took such nice care of you, leaving little notes for your garbage collector, or the postal worker. Kids really enjoy drawing and making cards and things like that, it's a creative outlet. It's a way to keep their hands busy while they're waiting for the meal. And then I think that that begets itself, I think that kids start to say, oh, maybe I'll write some nice notes for Teacher Appreciation Week to my teachers. I think that every little thing that you do makes its own impact, and that it's cumulative drops in a bucket.
Heidi Rabinowitz: The Book Fox website for writers has a list of 50 interesting author interview questions. So pick a number between one and 50. And let's see what question we come up with.
Natalie Silverstein: 42.
Heidi Rabiowitz: Okay, the question number 42 is "Do you Google yourself?"
Natalie Silverstein: Never. Gosh, I've never done that, should I?
Heidi Rabinowitz [laughing] Probably not.
Natalie Silverstein: [laughing] I don't. My book is only about a month old, so give me time. I'm sure that is coming. But I hope that when I Google myself at some point in the future, that people will just say, this is just a nice thing to have on my kitchen table, and my kids like to flip through it and they like to look for these fun ideas. This is the feedback I'm getting from friends and folks who have picked up the book. Every time I hear something like that, I feel like it's a good thing that I put out into the world. So I hope the Google-verse or universe will also appreciate that.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Usually, on the podcast, I have a Tikkun Olam moment, where guests invite listeners to take some kind of action to heal the world. Now, your entire book is an invitation to heal the world. But is there any particular thought that you would like to share right now? Maybe something about how you yourself stay strong in the face of the world's many problems?
Natalie Silverstein: Hmm. Yeah, you know, it's funny, sometimes when it hits home, you know, it really feels like... it feels like such a huge win. We're on the subway and, and there's a gentleman panhandling walking on the subway, as they do here in New York. And he was walking by and telling his story and, and my son just unzips the little pocket on his jacket and takes out a quarter that he had in there and, and gives it to the man. And you know, you think to yourself, I don't know how much of what we do sinks in and then sometimes I think it does. And it's all good. It's all for the good. I think the whole point of this Jewish teaching around tikkun olam is what is our responsibility to other people? What can we do? There is always something we can do, so we should encourage our children to look for that. Those are the things that I fall back on when I have challenging days, you know, raising kids in this... in this town, for sure.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Is there anything you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Natalie Silverstein: Oh, gosh, I don't think so. I always tell folks, it's never too early. It's never too late. Start where you are with what you've got, do what you can. Don't be discouraged. And I think ultimately it makes a huge difference for others around you. And it makes a huge impact on the people that they're becoming.
Heidi Rabinowitz: Natalie Silverstein thank you so much for speaking with us.
Natalie Silverstein: Thank you for having me, Heidi, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
TEASER: Hi, I'm Anne Dublin, the author of A Cage Without Bars. I'd like to dedicate the next episode of Book of Life podcast the same way I did in my book. I'd like to dedicate it to the millions of people, men, women and children who are still enslaved in countless places around the globe.
THEME MUSIC, OUTRO: Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi AT 561-206-2473 or Bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too. There are lots of ways to support the show through Patreon and through donations to our home library, The Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You can find links for all of that and more at BookofLifePodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading.