The holidays are an ideal time to encourage children to give back to the community. But how do you inspire them to volunteer?
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Pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD, MPH offers answers to common questions parents ask about fostering a sense of community in their children.
Q: How do children benefit from volunteer work?
A: Volunteering can help children develop a sense of self. It helps them feel like they are an active participant in their environment, rather than having things just happen to them. Here, they are making things happen in a good way. This can enhance self-esteem, create a sense of purpose and help form their own positive view of their personal future.
It can also help them find the caring aspects of themselves, and contribute to core beliefs they might have or want to cultivate, including a sense of social justice, honesty, integrity and responsibility. It certainly provides meaning to the recipient of their services. And volunteering can expose them to positive role models, as well as positive youth peer mentors.
Q: At what age do you suggest children begin doing volunteer work?
A: There are no age limits, old or young, for the benefits of service and volunteering. Children as young as toddlers can participate. Having toddlers in a soup kitchen or community center or nursing home is always a joyful distraction. (You can call that a joyful noise!) School age children have other gifts to share, and adolescents and young adults can layer further onto the experience.
Q: I don’t want to force my child to do volunteer work; I want him to want to do it on his own. How can you build this into a child’s character?
A: Do it together. Walk the walk, and bring him along. A “do as I say, not as I do” approach doesn’t work very well here. And give high praise for desired behaviors, i.e., praise that is not effusive or gushing. It needs to be authentic. Find role models you emulate to join your family’s village. This group can include “adopted grandparents,” kids and families whose values align with yours, extended family, favorite teachers or coaches, or anyone else who you thing could imprint well on your child. Choose wisely!
Q: My son needs to perform volunteer service for school, but he hasn’t started yet. How do you suggest I persuade him to go out and find opportunities?
A: What are your son’s interests? What drives him? Talk to your school’s guidance counselor, and ask for suggestions based on your son’s interests. If he likes animals, the local rescue center or animal protection league has all sorts of options. Is he great with kids? What about tutoring or helping kids learn to read? Is he great with grandparents? How about a nursing and assisted-living facility? Your church or temple may also have volunteer opportunities for adolescents.
Q: Why do some schools encourage volunteer opportunities? Do colleges view this favorably?
A: Many schools recognize the value of giving and altruism in getting teens to feel good about themselves. It can help them feel valued and be a means of meeting new people outside of their regular world. They can acquire new skills, or try on a career that that they might otherwise not experience.
Colleges want students who have learned to think beyond themselves, particularly those kids who have distinguished themselves through their service — not just those who have “checked the box” next to the college application question about volunteer experience.
For your teen, find something that he or she is passionate about, and feed that interest. Your local library or church may also have great ideas, as well as the school’s guidance counselor and college adviser.