Teaching Them to Change the World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach your kids to be problem-solvers. Not necessarily world-changing problem solvers, though that would be marvelous, but even just little-problem solvers. In some areas, we are really good at this, but in others… not so much. Every family is much the same, I think. Good at creating independence in some of the little things, and in some of the big things, but somehow never quite getting to the point where we wish our kids really were. Do we expect too much? Perhaps. But perhaps we don’t expect enough.

One of the people who tops my Most-Inspirational-People-Of-All-Time list is Rachel Coleman, of Signing Time fame. She is one of those women who you can’t help but look at and say “Wow! How do you do it?” She is Mom to two beautiful girls, Leah and Lucy. She is also the co-creator of the Signing Time DVD series, inspired by her oldest daughter (who is deaf) and the need to teach sign language to kids of all ages and abilities to eliminate barriers of communication for deaf children. As if that isn’t enough, she also started the Signing Time Foundation, inspired by her younger daughter (who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair), to eliminate barriers for all children with disabilities through projects like inclusive summer camps, wheelchair accessible parks, and teaching sign language to deaf children in countries like Ghana who lack the resources to provide these children with adequate instruction. Talk about an over-achiever.

The thing that strikes me the most about Rachel Coleman is that, no matter the challenge she faces, no matter how emotionally difficult and financially straining, she not only picks herself up and carries on, she sees in it an opportunity to better the world… and reaches out with both hands to make our world a better place. Somewhere, somehow, she learned that she has the power to not only make her own life the best it can be, but that she can use what she has to make as much of the world as she can reach the best it can be, too.

How does one learn that? How do you teach that to your children?

I’ve come to believe that you learn it by trying it, and that you teach it by doing it and involving them in it. I’ve come to believe that by watching and helping another fantastic mom and her 3 daughters as they set about a small project that grew and grew and grew. In 2008, my neighbour and dear friend Sharon and her middle daughter Catherine, then 7 years old, decided to donate their hair for wigs for cancer patients. When they found out that it can take up to 12 hair donations to make a single wig, they figured they had better get a few more people involved. They started a blog and sent emails to the school, hoping to get at least enough other people making hair donations to be able to donate enough for a single wig, and maybe even more. The first blog post is humble in the extreme:

This will be a terrific mother/daughter thing for us to do, and, just maybe we can help a lot more people if we pass the word along and get other people to donate their hair at the same time.

They got enough people. Between classmates of Catherine’s, friends, neighbours, some great local companies pitching in to help, some free advertising in the community paper, and word-of-mouth, they ended up with 46 hair donations, $3 500 in monetary donations to the Canadian Cancer Society, and a whole gaggle of little girls sporting brand-new bobbed haircuts and enormous smiles.

So they did it again.

By June of 2009, they had increased their numbers to 110 hair donations and $21 546 donated to the Canadian Cancer Society. It boggles the mind. That’s one hundred and ten people, the vast majority of them little girls, some as young as 5 years old donating the very hair on their heads to someone they don’t even know and will probably never see, and they did it joyfully. And many, many more supporting them with love by showing up, cheering them on, and donating what they could in support of a good cause.

My daughter was one of the little girls in question last year.

B getting her hair cut for Catherine's Pretty Ponytails 2: Big Sis Takes Over!

The hair salon was absolutely overflowing with people, as was the parking lot. Everywhere you looked, people were smiling and there was this tremendous energy in the air.

And they’re doing it again in 2010.

In 2007, if you had asked me what it takes to raise world-changing children, I would have ummed and uuhhhed and told you something about meaningful teaching and exposure to opportunities and support of family and high quality schooling or some such rot. It’s all true, I suppose, but somehow I just knew that the old sawhorse “Be the change you want to see in the world” meant do little things around your home and your family as much as you can to try to be the best person you can. The Rachel Coleman’s of the world I put in a category that included “never someone ordinary like me” and “only natural born heroes with all the advantages” and other such unattainable thought processes.

Had you asked me in 2007 “Can a 7 year old girl convince more than one hundred of her friends, her family, her classmates, her neighbours, and even complete strangers to cut off their hair for cancer? Can she convince a few hundred more to donate over twenty thousand dollars to the Canadian Cancer Society?” I would have laughed and expressed extreme doubt if not outright skepticism.

I know better now.

Sharon and her daughters have shown me that even a 7 year old girl with a small idea can become a world-changer. You don’t need to be a superhero to be a world-changer. You just need to be willing to put yourself out there. People like Sharon and Rachel Coleman embody the very best of humanity’s ability to rise to any challenge and not only meet the challenge but take it further and make a lasting mark on the world in the process. In doing so, they have made a lasting mark upon their children as well. They are teaching their children to change the world by trying to change the world with their children.

And there it is.

They are teaching their children to change the world by trying to change the world with their children.

What are you doing?

UPDATE: If you are interested in supporting the Catherine’s Pretty Ponytails Campaign either by donating your hair or by making a financial donation, you can check out the website at convio.cancer.ca/goto/2010 or the blog catherineprettyponytailscampaign.wordpress.com.

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