Each November, we fill our tables with family and our bellies with turkey. And not long after, our kids start making their wish lists for Santa. It’s this time of year, when all of the attention is on gifts and holiday feasts, that parents can introduce children to the concepts of gratitude and giving to others. One great way to do so is through volunteering.
Volunteering offers children of all ages a bounty of important values, says Philip Brown, Ph.D., a fellow at the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers University, a senior consultant to the National School Climate Center and an expert on character development for Wear the Cape. These values include fostering empathy, bolstering self-esteem, developing practical skills, building civic responsibility and providing a means of exploring new interests.
Not only that, but volunteering is good for you. A 2013 study found that people who volunteer have lower levels of depression and an increased sense of well-being, and a 2011 study determined that people who volunteer for selfless reasons live longer.
Sarah Taby, M.S., a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania, works primarily with children and adolescents. She regularly recommends volunteering to her clients, particularly for children who have difficulty recognizing their self-worth. “It builds self-esteem, without a doubt,” Taby says. “There are kids I work with who don’t view themselves as useful. We’ll talk about putting some volunteer work together so they can feel like a leader and feel like they have something they’re bringing to the world that’s valuable.”
Brown refers to this concept as “self-efficacy,” which he defines as “the difference between feeling you’re impotent and can’t do anything versus feeling that your efforts can make a difference.” Says Taby: “Volunteering can provide ways to feel like you matter and are valuable to other people’s lives. It’s one of the best ways to increase self-esteem, especially when you’re an adolescent or child and don’t have that much power, or if you’re being bullied and feel no one likes you.”
Not only can giving back help kids feel better about themselves, but it also teaches them empathy. “One of the most potent aspects of volunteering is expanding your field of awareness and your perception and understanding of other people’s lives, problems and issues,” Brown says. “You build empathy and understanding more deeply through connection with people in need, that they are people who deserve dignity and respect.”
In addition to the many ways volunteering is good for the individual, it can also have a positive impact on groups, such as classes, schools and families, when they give back together. Taby has seen the effects on her clients’ families, and she often recommends parents and children volunteer together. “It’s a team-building activity, essentially,” she says. “You get to walk away and feel as a unit that you did something great today and that your family contributed in some way. I think it makes families feel tighter.”
Ready to volunteer? Brown offers some tips to consider first:
- Work with groups that are experienced in providing volunteer work.
- Structure the activity, and talk about it both before and afterward. Ask key questions: Why do you think we’re doing this? Why is it important? Do you think you made a difference? What was the experience like?
- Choosing activities that align with kids’ existing interests is a good starting point, but don’t limit volunteering to just that. A goal is to expand children’s horizons.
- Modeling makes a difference. Young kids won’t be able to fully reflect on an experience, but they will understand it’s important if they see it’s important to you.
- Be patient, especially if kids grumble and groan or don’t seem to “get it” at first. It often takes repeated attempts to sink in.
- Involve children as much as possible, as appropriate for their age. Let them stretch a bit beyond their comfort zone — and yours. The more they do, the more they’ll learn.
- Don’t use volunteer work as a punishment. People are much less likely to reap the benefits of volunteering if it’s punitive.
Looking for ideas? Here are a few great ways to get started:
1. Pack lunches. Kids can help make sandwiches and pack them in lunch bags with chips and a drink to hand out to local homeless people. Allow kids to do as much counting, sorting, spreading and assembling on their own as possible. Decorating the bags or writing a kind message to the side is a thoughtful addition.
2. Make a “helping jar.” Save leftover lunch money, random coins found on the sidewalk and the surprise $10 bill discovered in a coat pocket in a jar. (Kids can even decorate the container.) Take your kids to a dollar or drug store to buy travel-size toiletries, tissues and other care items to take to shelters or give to homeless people.
3. Care for animals. Working with animals is a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to learn about giving and responsibility, Brown says. Even feeding and caring for family pets teaches little ones these valuable lessons. While supervised by a parent, children can play with kittens at a local shelter or pet adoption agency. Older kids can offer to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, especially during bad weather, or families can take their friendly pet to a nursing home to meet and cheer up the residents.
4. Host a baking party. Kids can invite their friends over for a morning of baking cookies and other tasty treats. Afterward, they can set up a bake sale or donation-based dessert-tasting in your living room or on the lawn for other parents, neighbors and friends, with proceeds benefiting a charity of their choosing.
5. Help Mother Nature. Families and kids who love the great outdoors can connect with conservation and nature organizations to remove trash from parks and beaches, plant trees or build bat houses. National organizations, such as Keep America Beautiful and The Nature Conservancy, and the apparel company REI offer volunteer opportunities, as do local groups. Families can also tend a garden together and donate the produce to local hunger-relief agencies.
6. Participate in a charity run/walk or bike ride. Most communities host several charity rides, walks and runs throughout the year, including breast-cancer walks in October, Thanksgiving Day “turkey trots,” the March of Dimes March for Babies, and the YWCA’s annual Race Against Racism. These fun, healthy events can be made even more meaningful if they raise money and awareness for a cause or disease that has affected your family or friends.
7. Throw a charity birthday party. Instead of receiving gifts at their next birthday party, kids can give instead. Invite party guests to bring gently used or new toys to donate to shelters or church groups. Milk + Bookies provides a full template for hosting parties where guests bring books to donate to needy kids. Each kid can decorate their own HappyDoll, which is then sent to poor children in the United States and world-wide.