By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Things are so tough these days that most of us are ready to do our part to make our country strong again.

Everyone’s worried about the economy, health care, the environment, and safety in a dangerous world. With unemployment and the economic crisis in our homes and around the corner, we can’t hide adult fears and struggles from our children, but we can show them what we can do, what they can do to help.

THE ECONOMY: Our current problems are complicated, but we know that greed, selfishness, irresponsibility and wasteful self-indulgence have not helped.

Young children struggle with conflicting wishes to hoard all the goodies for themselves, and to share them with those they care about. We adults can model a different set of values and behaviors: being thankful for what we have and for being able to share it with those who have less; spending a little less now to save a little more; going along with what’s fair even if there’s no one to catch us if we don’t. Opportunities for learning these simple but important lessons occur every day and in family rituals:

Once a week, each family member can give something to someone who needs it more, by helping out an elderly neighbor, inviting a family going through unemployment over for dinner, volunteering in a shelter or soup kitchen, or putting a dime or quarter in a jar to save up for a cause the whole family cares about. (See donorschoose.org or habitat.org for ways your family can make a difference in your community, or around the country.)

Allowances: Even though money is tight, a regular allowance – no matter how small (a nickel a week gives the same message as a dollar) – can help children learn to make smart decisions about limited resources, and to save now and be glad they did later.

THE ENVIRONMENT: It’s bigger than all of us, and may seem too big to a child to be able to doing anything about. Yet there are small ways that each of us can help.

As a family, start saving up now for a tree to plant. Learn about the kind of trees that are best suited for your neighborhood, those that absorb the most excess carbon in the air while using the least amount of water. When it’s time, you can pick it out and plant it together.

Help your children remember that they can save water by turning off the faucet each time that they brush their teeth. (See charitywater.org for other ways you can help.)

HEALTH CARE: Our nation’s health care crisis is also too big for any of us to solve alone. But each of us can do our part by doing our best to stay healthy, the earlier the better. A healthy diet, plenty of exercise, simple safety precautions (like seat belts and bike helmets), and balancing out stress with family times to laugh and relax together can make a big difference.

Healthy nutrition can be simple:

  • Eat more vegetables.
  • Eat less processed food, fried food, fast food, and soft drinks.
  • Enjoy what you eat, and take the time to savor it slowly while enjoying being together as a family.
  • Keep the TV off at mealtimes.
  • No grazing between meals, no eating in cars or on your feet.

EXERCISE: Limit TV to an hour a day, and computer time to an hour a day (except for homework). Walk or bike whenever you can, or use public transportation. This can be your family’s contribution to saving our planet’s health too.

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS: See the safekids.org to help keep your children safe, and to protect yourselves, for their sake and yours.

Safety in a dangerous world is another challenge that may seem too big for children to tackle. But adults may have something to learn from them.

Recently, a preschool teacher asked each child at circle time what he or she had done for winter vacation, but skipped the child sitting closest to her. The children took this seriously, and reminded her not to leave anybody out. One child asked, “What about Remy? He’s sick today. We’ll have to ask him too.”

Very young children naturally work to include each other, to help children with special challenges find their roles, and belong.

Much violence comes from hatred passed across generations, and fear that scarce survival resources like food and water will not be fairly shared. What can parents and children do?

Look at a globe and pick out one country, one your children have never heard of. Go to the library or on the Internet to learn about its people. Is there some small way that you all can get to know them? Is there a school, hospital, or orphanage that you can get to know?

See if you can find a trustworthy organization that you can support to provide clean water, food, medical care, teachers. (You might want to check out Amigos de las Americas, Mil Milagros, Oxfam, Partners in Health, Peace is Loud, Save the Children, Unicef and others. We’re sure many of our readers are involved with terrific organizations that help other families here and abroad. We’d love to hear about them.)

Children can become pen pals, or send drawings when language is a barrier. They can help bring peace one friendship at a time.

All of these problems and solutions are interconnected. What each of us can do may seem small, but when we act together as a nation, we are powerful. We can model values that will endure through the bubbles and bursts. We can keep ourselves healthy and strong, saving health care resources for illness that can’t be prevented. We can protect our planet so that we can be sure to have enough energy, water, and food for all of us.

Times are tough, but we can teach our children to do their part for change.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.