It is always unnerving to me when I meet middle and upper middle class teenagers who don’t feel a sense of responsibility or a desire to improve the world, help the poor, protect the vulnerable (whether human or nonhuman), make humane choices, or be of service to others. Our culture today seems to foster a sense of entitlement that I find damaging not only to our world, but to our children whose lives are diminished by a focus too intent upon the self.
This doesn’t bode well for our collective future or the individual futures of our children. Before signing their children up for more music, dance, sports, or other “enrichment” programs, parents might want to first ensure that their children are steeped in an ethic of giving. In high school their teenagers may indeed “sign up” for service projects at the behest of college guidance counselors who remind them that they’ll have to show community service engagement in their college applications. This “service” is often just another “course” to take, another hoop to jump through, like an SAT prep class, rather than a true opportunity to discover what happens when we help others. Being of true service is an almost certain path toward personal meaning and joy while simultaneously making a positive difference in the world.
So how does one foster a service ethic and sense of responsibility toward others among children? Waiting until the teen years is often too late. Service should begin very early on. Here are some suggestions:
1. Promote an ethic of financial generosity from the earliest age. Decide what you consider to be a reasonable and affordable minimum percentage of your income to donate and teach this ethic to your children; explain why it’s important. Then decide as a family how to allocate your charitable contributions. While you may want to provide some donations to direct care for people and/or animals, you may want to put a larger percentage toward organizations that work to change unjust, inhumane, and/or unsustainable systems to ultimately obviate the need for so much direct help to individuals.
2. Find ways to help in your community that your children enjoy. Often communities organize fun activities like bowl-a-thons to support a local organization like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or “pet parades” for the local animal shelter, and children get sponsors and spend a fun day doing an activity they love. A spokesperson from the receiving organization may speak and explain what the raised money will accomplish, teaching the kids early on that they can be part of something important and good while having a good time. Consider this a stepping stone to more direct service.
3. Seek out opportunities for direct engagement, but take care to choose ways to help that are a good match for your particular children. If they love animals, volunteering at a local shelter or wildlife rehab center may be the right choice. If they’ve always gravitated to the elderly, consider bringing them to visit with people at a nursing home. If they love performing, they can share their talents at hospitals or retirement communities. If they love to read aloud, they can do this for those who are blind or for young children at a library story hour. If they love being outdoors, they can participate in clean-ups in parks and beaches or help in community gardens. If they love to cook and bake, they can help in a soup kitchen or provide treats for a food pantry. It’s critical that volunteering not become drudgery and that your children eagerly look forward to their opportunities to help in order to develop a lifelong love of service. By the teen years they may be enthusiastically volunteering to build houses at Habitat for Humanity, interning and helping at non-profits that create systemic change, and raising money for causes they believe in. In addition to helping others and leading more meaningful lives they will also be gaining important skills that may help them measurably in the future.
We may think that adding another extracurricular in the form of volunteerism is yet another burdensome task in our over-scheduled children’s lives. Quite the opposite. Consider this the core “extracurricular” where our children’s deepest ethics and values are cultivated and nourished for a lifetime.
Image courtesy of Alameda County Community Food Bank via Creative Commons.