“There But For the Grace of God Go I” – 4 Tips for Raising Children Who Care

by Stefanie Groot

“There but for the grace of God go I.” To many it’s merely an archaic truism.  Yet the saying resonates with children’s author Lois Brandt, because her father uttered the phrase when he encountered homeless people on the street and when he volunteered at San Quentin State Prison. Through her writing, teaching and speaking engagements Brandt helps children and their parents develop the empathy and compassion that are embodied by this old quotation.

Recently Loaves & Fishes invited Brandt, the Seattle-based author of Maddi’s Fridge, an award-winning children’s book about friendship and caring, to speak about “Raising Children Who Care,” at Myers Park United Methodist Church.  Loaves & Fishes, a network of over 30 emergency food pantries in Mecklenburg County, provides a week’s worth of nutritionally balanced groceries to individuals and families experiencing a short-term crisis.

Brandt quickly linked her story-telling to the problem of children’s hunger in Charlotte and the United States. She described a childhood experience in which she accidentally found out that her best friend had no food in her refrigerator, except for a single pint of milk her friend brought home each day for her little brother. Brandt explained how the story of this friend’s bare refrigerator “stuck in her head” all the way to adulthood.  Being a writer, she did the natural thing and wrote a story about it.  Ten years and 40 rejection letters later, the book was published by Flashlight Press.  The publication of Maddi’s Fridge had an enormous impact on Brandt.  As she toured and promoted the book, she met more and more people who had grown up living with hunger, just like the book’s title character.  She told the Charlotte audience, “I had written one story, but I realized that there were millions of people who have similar stories that go untold.”

Brandt noted that Charlotte has thousands of similar tales of families and especially children who go hungry each day.  “A book about childhood hunger in America goes against our national story,” Brandt explained. “Yet the 76,000 people helped by Loaves & Fishes would tell a different story.”  She marveled that last year 46% of the people that Loaves & Fishes served were children like Maddi.  Other local statistics paint an even worse picture.  According to the 2018 NC Data Card published by NC Child, 19.5% of Mecklenburg County children (nearly 50,000) live in households that are food insecure.

While Brandt cautioned the audience that she is more of an expert on story-telling than on parenting, she shared that her experiences talking to people about her book have crystallized for her a few straightforward ways that parents can raise children who care:

  1. Walk the talk – Help others in need. Include children in your volunteer activities. When shopping, take a list of items that organizations like Loaves & Fishes need and encourage your children to choose items from the list and drop them by a Loaves & Fishes pantry.
  2. Get out of your bubble. Step out of the groups of people like you and allow yourself and your children to get to know people who are different from you. Also try to get to know the people you are helping through your charitable and volunteer efforts.
  3. Bring people into your space. Expand your and your children’s universe by finding common ground with folks you may not normally get to know through sports, hobbies, etc.
  4. Honor your own family’s stories. If your family (including past generations and extended family) has experienced hardship and been helped by others, talk about it.  By acknowledging that you have received help, you help your children develop empathy.  Also, recognize the helpful things your children are already doing.  Acknowledge and record these activities by writing stories, drawing pictures, and other means of telling “helping stories.”

Brandt’s tips echo suggestions made by parenting experts across the country.  For example, Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that parents model empathy for others, make caring for others a priority, provide opportunities for children to practice empathy, and expand their child’s circle of concern.  Charlotte parenting expert Wendy Petricoff adds, “Parents have to talk out loud, in normal conversations and in front of their kids, about their own acts of kindness. Just stating that you took soup to a sick friend is modeling charitable behavior. Our kids are watching and listening and learning from us all the time. When your children are old enough, find causes that they can relate to like providing a birthday gift for a child or donating books to an underserved school.”

Whether it’s by delivering chicken noodle soup to a sick friend or donating to a food pantry, parents’ actions actually do speak louder than words. Lois Brandt hopes that by outlining such parenting strategies during her presentations she can help reverse what she sees as a troubling national trend. “Our country has moved away from my dad’s seemingly old-fashioned idea of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’” As she visits schools across the country and talks to parents who are eager to instill compassion in their children, she also sees reason for optimism.  “We are also a country that honors children, and we have a ‘we can fix it – we can do anything’ attitude.  Surely we can fix childhood hunger.”

For more tips on raising children who care and to support Loaves & Fishes’ Childhood Hunger Campaign go to www.loavesandfishes.org.

For more information about Lois Brandt and “Maddi’s Fridge” visit www.loisbrandt.com.

For local parenting workshops and private sessions with parenting expert Wendy Petricoff visit Charlotteparentingsolutions.com.

Sources:

“Mecklenburg County 2018 NC Data Card.” NC Child. Web. 6 June 2018.

“Raising Caring, Respectful, Ethical Children.” Making Caring Common Project. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Web. 6 June 2018.

Mary Gordon. The Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. The Experiment, LLC. 2005.

 

Stefanie Groot is a longtime Loaves & Fishes volunteer and mom of two daughters.