A Word to Parents
In Nicholas's case, he developed his interest in global poverty perhaps in part because his parents always sponsored a child through Plan USA, exchanging letters and sometimes visits, and always encouraged him to "trick or treat for UNICEF." We have likewise tried to model behavior that will encourage our three kids to think of others around the world who have needs that the average American child can barely imagine.
We too sponsor a child through Plan USA (our current sponsored child is in the Dominican Republic). Nick's parents regularly send our kids Christmas gifts through Heifer International, such as a few chickens presented to an African family in each of their names.
We also used the advance from our new book, Half the Sky, to build a middle school in a Cambodian village that never had one before. Then we traveled as a family to Cambodia over the last Christmas vacation for the school opening, with each of our kids speaking at the ceremony.
Whenever we can, we also have taken our kids to see how others sometimes must live, so that they connect the idea of poverty to real people—just like them—that they have actually met. Once they have attached a face to hunger or homelessness, it becomes much more real. Indeed, because of our jobs as journalists, we've taken the kids into unusual situations—interviewing underground Christians in China who had been arrested and tortured, North Korean children in hiding, Kenyans brutalized during ethnic riots and Sudanese children suffering from diseases and parasites because they have the misfortune to live in an impoverished country. Few parents have the chance to expose their children to these sights directly, and not every parent would want to, but indirect exposure through books and films is possible for anyone. And in our experience, children aren't traumatized by these encounters but awakened.
Look, we can't pretend that teaching empathy is easy, or that any of these approaches have worked perfectly. I'd love to say that after seeing impoverished kids in Cambodia who were desperately eager to go to school, our own kids suddenly came to see school as an opportunity rather than a burden. Not true: They still don't bound out of bed on school days with smiles on their faces. But the cumulative effect of an exposure to the needy at home and abroad, coupled with encouragement to engage in efforts to make a difference, has had some impact on their thinking and behavior.
One of the things that parents learn is that children never turn out exactly as we intend: There's no magic formula for childrearing. But modeling empathy does make a difference, and it's one more reason why we ourselves are often the greatest beneficiaries when we reach out and try to help the neediest around the world.