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Kindness in action: 5 ways to teach kids to give back, serve others

Want your kids to be kind, not as a result of nagging, but because they genuinely care about other people? Help them get their hands dirty.
/ Source: TODAY

Want your kids to be kind, not as a result of nagging or lecturing, but because they genuinely care about other people?

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Here’s one way to do it: Help them get their hands dirty.

As part of our "Raising Kind Kids" challenge, our TODAY Parenting Team contributors have been weighing in with all sorts of ideas for teaching children about kindness — and a number of them involve leaving the comfort zone and doing community service for strangers. We’ve compiled some of those insights here.

Please feel free to join in this ongoing conversation by becoming a member of our TODAY Parenting Team, and stay connected to TODAY Parents updates on our Facebook page. If you have other ideas for how to raise kind kids, please say the word. We want to hear them!

1. “Teach them to serve rather than be served.” (Amy McCready)

“One of the best ways to give kids practice in real-world kindness is to serve others. Get the whole family involved to serve people in need. Find opportunities to lend a hand with any place of worship, local scout troops, Habitat for Humanity, animal shelters, nursing homes, even the guidance department at your child’s school. When kids realize the impact they can make by serving and being kind to others, you begin to foster a servant’s heart in them, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

2. Young kids can give clothes and toys away to other kids in need. (Mascara Maven and More)

"My Little Helper" art showing young girl gardening
Courtesy of Mascara Maven and More

"When (my toddler) would watch me retire her old clothes, she would get upset. Then I explained to her she isn't going to use them anymore and other people need them. She really grasped this concept when we gave some clothes and toys to another little girl who lost all of hers in a fire. This was a mixture of not only explaining, but letting her choose which toys she wanted to give away. I reminded her she was being very nice and doing such a good thing for someone else. (Then, she got a little crazy and started grabbing my things (like my car keys) to give away.) Now, she knows that if she wants more toys, we have to clean up some of what she already has and give them to other kids who would like them. There is no reason for her to have everything she has at her age, but I blame the grandparents. ;)")

3. Remember the value of foreign-exchange and study-abroad opportunities. (Laura Kosloff)

Looking up at starry night sky
"One way to raise strong and kind children is to expose them early to other cultures."Courtesy of Laura Kosloff

“How does study abroad or becoming a volunteer host family for a foreign teenager contribute to the development of strong and kind children? It's because they learn how others think, which makes them realize the world does not always think as they do. They learn how to deal with difficult situations, whether it be through living with someone adjusting to life in a foreign country or through being the student experiencing culture shock themselves. They learn the value of tolerance of other cultures by experience, not just by us telling them that ‘this is the right thing to do.’”

4. Spring break can be a pivotal time for college students. (Jennifer Swartvagher)

Jennifer Swartvagher's daughter Emilie
Jennifer Swartvagher's daughter Emilie opted for a spring break that involved working hard for people who needed help.Courtesy of Jennifer Swartvagher

“It shouldn’t have surprised me that my (college freshman) daughter, Emilie, had far different plans (for spring break) than I ever had. She was setting out for a remote location, just not one that would be in any travel magazine.

Jennifer Swartvagher's daughter Emilie did volunteer work in Kentucky.
Over spring break, Emilie installed decks, insulation, vinyl siding and even a roof.Courtesy of Jennifer Swartvagher

"‘Alternative Spring Break’ challenges college students to forego an MTV-style spring break, and spend a week in the poverty-stricken Appalachian region of Kentucky. Along with volunteers from other colleges and universities nationwide, they assisted families, who due to circumstances beyond their control found themselves in desperate need. ... This child who used to try anything to get out of doing her chores, performed tasks I would have never expected. She installed decks, insulation, vinyl siding, and even a roof.”

5. Have frank conversations with your kids about kindness, and let them surprise you. (Laura W.)

A mom with her 9-year-old daughter
"Kindness is a very important goal and you just have to go for it." -Laura's daughter, age 9Courtesy of Laura W.

This mom decided to talk with her 9-year-old daughter about kindness. Here are some excerpts from that chat:

“How do Dad and I teach you to be kind?

“You teach me how to be kind by showing me when someone isn't being very kind, you treat them nicely anyway. You treat them how you want to be treated and that's kindness. Because other adults haven’t been that nice to you. I've seen it. And you don't let it bother you. You just be nice to them. Unless it's Daddy and you joke around and be fake mean to him. ...

“You clearly like being kind. Not just because it’s the right thing to do. Why?

“It's hard to explain. It just comes naturally. I don't do it just to be nice. It's just who I am.

“Do you ever not have enough time to be kind?

“No offense, Mom, but this really isn't a good question. Throughout your day, you just have to be kind no matter what. I'd rather be late to something than run away from a chance to be kind.”

This story is part of NBCU's Season of Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness

Follow writer Laura T. Coffey on Twitter @ltcoff and Google+ and learn about her new book, "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts," at