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Teaching preschoolers about others’ needs is tough. While a toddler is the center of her own universe, a preschooler is just learning to share and to take into consideration the preferences and needs of family members and playmates. So it’s a challenge to get preschoolers to consider the needs of others who are outside their circle of family and playmates.

Nevertheless, many parents and educators think that it’s important to expose children to the fact of neediness in the community. This involves a balancing act with preschoolers, whose expanding mental horizons make them vulnerable to new fears. How may parents discuss topics like homelessness with their child in a way that meaningfully conveys what homelessness is without making her fear that her family might become homeless?

Talking about neediness is particularly challenging today, when fewer families are members are members of community organizations that draw from a wide portion of the community and when fewer families attend houses of worship where topics of human neediness and charity come up as a matter of course. Perhaps that’s why new initiatives are being undertaken to teach kids about neediness in the community.

One such initiative was the Sesame Street one-hour special Growing Hope Against Hunger, sponsored by Walmart. This special ran on PBS last month and dealt with the topic of hunger and food insecurity. It featured a muppet named Lily whose family regularly does not have enough to eat. The show is meant to be frank but ultimately reassuring about Lily’s needs: Lily and her family find enough to eat with the support of a food pantry, school meals, and a community garden. The show presents hunger in a way that is meant to address Lily’s two audiences: the children who do go hungry and whose worries are articulated by Lily and the children who never go hungry and who are introduced to the notion that others go hungry.

Another such initiative is a new program for children, Little Givers, currently being offered in Brooklyn but with plans to expand to Manhattan in 2012. Little Givers offers a ten-week program about philanthropy for three- to five-year-olds. Each week, the children do a project designed to help others. One week the preschoolers assembled care packages for patients at the Seattle Children’s Hospital; another week they decorated lunch bags and filled them with sandwiches and vegetables for a homeless shelter.

When I asked co-founder Jen Cullert about how Little Givers’ teacher manages to raise the topic of homelessness with the preschoolers in a way that makes it meaningful but not too scary, she said:

We talk about how we’re very lucky to have homes, beds, toys, and refrigerators full of food and that not everyone has those things. We also try to be careful to say we are lucky “at this time” to remind us all that we may go through ups and downs ourselves.

Ms. Cullert said that she and her two fellow co-founders of Little Givers, all mothers of preschool children, were inspired to start Little Givers because

We grew up knowing the importance of giving to important causes and before we had kids we were active in the community. With kids, it’s more difficult to find age-appropriate ways to get them involved. We were taking our kids to soccer games and art classes and we thought wouldn’t it be nice if they could be involved in a class where they’d learn more about their community and how they can make an impact on the world around them?

A Sesame Street special or a class may spark a discussion between parents and their children about needs in their community. But the very fact that parents are looking for help in these conversations is a sign of the erosion of community ties chronicled in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Our social lives bring us less frequently into contact with a broad range of the community than was true in past decades, and many of us are less likely to be active in community groups that address the needs of those in our neighborhoods.

A Wall Street Journal article entitled “Parents Outsource the Basics” raised the suggestion that programs like Little Givers teach children about matters that parents should take care to teach children themselves. After all, parents might teach children about philanthropy through their example and at their house of worship rather than by signing their children up for a class. But, as Putnam’s argument suggests, perhaps it is genuinely harder today than in past decades to introduce children to the range of needs in the community. In response to the charge that programs like Little Givers let parents “outsource” their responsibilities, Ms. Cullert of Little Givers replies:

We’re providing more opportunities for families. Little Givers starts a productive dialogue in class that children take home to continue with their families. The “outsourcing” angle has a negative connotation to it, but we find that opening a dialogue about giving is a very positive experience for parents and children. We are not just teaching about giving back to the community, our kids complete projects every week that do give back.

We might regret that parents need help starting such a dialogue. However, if such programs help parents and children start conversations about philanthropy, perhaps they’re a welcome development in this age of weakened community and social ties.

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