Maybe your child is volunteering because it’s a class requirement. Maybe it’s to buff up the extracurricular section of college applications. Or there’s always the trite, “it’s the right thing to do” and “to make the world a better place.”
There are lots of reasons to volunteer, but we often think it’s something we “should” do instead of something we “want” to do. And when it comes to our kids – who we make go to school, brush their teeth, eat their greens and go to bed on time – one more “should” might be too much to manage.
But if we look a little deeper, we find that volunteering is a great tool for raising responsible, ethical and smart kids. And that’s a “want” that all parents share.
What’s the Opposite of Entitlement?
Let’s be real: Many of our kids live in a world focused on having the latest and greatest things – a high-tech phone, stylish pair of jeans, brand new car, etc. We live in an area where affluence and privilege are the norm. It can be an eye-opening experience for them to meet people who struggle to get food on the table, search for a safe place to sleep, or feel so sick they can’t get out of bed.
Even as adults, we often take the basics for granted: shelter, food and water, health. If our kids have never known anything different, how can they appreciate those things at all? Volunteering takes our kids beyond their familiar world and reveals the diversity and hardship that exists all around them. It breaks the “it’s all about me” mentality.
When our children find someone who is grateful to receive a hand-me-down winter coat, they might realize that the latest video game isn’t so important after all.
Real Life Lessons in Empathy
Empathy can be a difficult concept to grasp. “I like to use examples to teach empathy,” offers Rachel Bailey, Northern VA positive parenting specialist and founder of Parenting By Heart. “The movie ’Frozen’ is a great example for kids. Elsa does some ‘bad’ things to people, and it would be easy to dislike her or even consider her ‘evil.’ But the movie puts us in her shoes and we understand her. We root for her because we empathize with her struggles.”
Volunteering can help us understand someone else’s world. That homeless man on the street corner isn’t just a smelly eyesore. He has a story just like all of us. Serving food to the homeless on Thanksgiving Day may seem like a small thing, but it could mean everything to that man to have warm food in his belly for a day.
Maybe our kids don’t have the exact same problems (I doubt any of them are grappling with magical ice powers), but in a broader sense, they can relate to the struggle. When we understand someone else’s experiences and share in their emotions, we see and act with new perspective. Empathy may be the first step toward solving the problems of the world.
Experiential Learning to Find Yourself
Experience is life’s greatest teacher, and volunteering can provide a wealth of experience. Leadership, organization, communication, time management, creativity and teamwork are just a few important skills that kids can learn through volunteering.
But more than that, volunteering can give kids a chance to explore and learn who they are. Maybe your child discovers a passion for the environment, or medicine or animals. They might be really good at organizing big events or writing or building houses. Learning these things can positively influence future life and career choices, and even better, they develop self-esteem and confidence.
Plus, if those things fit well on a college application, that’s just a bonus.
Tips for Volunteering with Kids
Look for volunteering options that engage your kids’ existing interests. For example, if your son or daughter loves animals, contact your local animal shelter about helping out. Make it fun!
Pick opportunities that allow your kids to see the end results of their efforts. If your kids see the positive impact of their actions, they may appreciate and enjoy the volunteering experience more.
Let the experience speak louder than your words. Instead of lecturing your kids about volunteering, ask them what they thought of the experience and let them come to their own conclusions.
Lead by example. Your children watch everything you do. If your children see you helping others, they are more likely to understand the value of giving back and practice it in their own lives.
Kids are never “too young” to volunteer. They may not understand the concept yet, but kindness and generosity are values that you can start teaching on day one. Even if your youngest child isn’t able to take action, bring him or her along to share in the experience.
Jenn Stanhagen wanders through life doing a little bit of everything, loving it and then writing about it. You can find her on Twitter
@JennStanhagen or her blog, blankgraycanvas.com.