Co-Authored by Jason Gracia, author of Shifting the Balance.
In a world where disagreement reigns supreme, finding total agreement is virtually impossible. Difficult as it is, I found it. Whether from Jackson, Mississippi or Jakarta, mothers and fathers the world over agree on one thing: they want to raise teens of character and connection.
Character, though elusive, is vital to a person, a community, a country. Doing the right thing when the wrong is so much easier, standing up for what you believe in, fighting for a cause greater than yourself...these are just a few of the signposts of character, and the need for it in our children has never been greater.
Connection is at the root of what makes us human. The ability for your children to connect with those around them and to empathize with their situation and feelings is vital. We need children who care about other people, for in a flash they become adults who do the same.
The real question, then, is how. How do we as parents instill character and connection? What steps can we take to ensure our children adopt and nurture these qualities?
In a word, volunteering.
It's nothing new, of course. The idea of lending a helping hand is as old as scripture. But how many parents today make it a point to seek out opportunities for our children to lend that helping hand? And how many of us realize just how profound the experience can be for teens?
From the instant we step foot into a morning, afternoon, or evening volunteering, the focus shifts, automatically, from us to them. We can't help it; neither can your kids. The very nature of the task forces us to consider someone else's plight, someone else's needs, someone else. For a teen growing into a young adult, what better way to nurture empathy and compassion?
Tacked onto the benefit of empathy is the benefit of connecting with new people in new places. Again, introducing your teen to volunteerism forces the matter--they have no choice but to talk with unfamiliar people and develop the muscle to reach out and engage. Social skills, emotional IQ, and the like are all improved, automatically, as your teen learns firsthand how to navigate the waters of relationships.
Finally we have the benefit of bigger things. Most of the causes that require volunteers are striving for something greater, something that extends far beyond the issues of our daily lives. They're making a difference. In some cases, they're changing the world. If character requires committing to things greater than ourselves, we have another surefire way to achieve the result. Volunteering forces the issue once again.
We need children who can connect just as much as we need children with character. Volunteerism nurtures both by its very nature. And you are the key to it all.
If the process is new to your family, below are a few ideas to help get you started...
Opportunities to Volunteer
1. Start Small: Create activities around the house or neighborhood in which your kids pitch in. Chores are the low-hanging fruit, but the benefit increase as you extend beyond your own front door. Does the neighbor need help? Friend down the street? Local market?
2. Community: After looking near, look far. Does your neighborhood or city have a community center? Do they run food or clothing drives? Do they organize events to aid those in need throughout the community? Serving Thanksgiving meals? Collecting jackets and blankets during the cold winter months? Another opportunity ripe for personal growth--along with a massive amount of appreciation--is visiting retirement homes in your area. Though it can be uncomfortable for teens at first, the joy given and taken when a lonely soul gets the chance to connect and share with a young adult cannot properly be put into words...at least not mine.
3. Causes: The next step up the ladder of giving is committing time and energy to greater causes. A quick search online will bring you to dozens of important battles that are raging to end hunger, poverty, violence, disease, and more, battles that need the support of people like you and your children.
Volunteerism, in a sense, is the easy way out. You merely need to open the door. After that, the act of giving takes over and can't help but leave your child in a better, brighter place.