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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Three Cheers for Kid Volunteers!

Nov 26, 2019 12:30PM
By Malia Jacobson

Throughout the year, and especially at the holidays, volunteering with children can facilitate family bonding and impart valuable lessons in giving back. More than 15 million youth—around 55 percent—participate in volunteer activities, mostly through religious, school, or youth organizations, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. But kids aren’t always willing helpers. Parents may wonder how to volunteer with a tiny tot, or about the best way to motivate a self-centered tween. Looking to get kids excited about giving back? Here’s age-by-age guidance on raising truly altruistic children.

TODDLER/PRESCHOOL YEARS (ages 2–5) Helping Hearts Don’t assume that kids need to be school-age before they can volunteer. “When kids are very young, you can volunteer as a family unit,” says Simon Lockyer, father of two and founder of the online giving platform everydayhero.com. Volunteering helps teach tots interpersonal skills, including communication, empathy, and respect for others, and can foster future interest in volunteering. Toddlers and preschoolers can help plant community gardens, wrap or decorate gifts, help pick up litter or rake leaves for an outdoor cleanup, sort and stack donated coats and scarves, or help shelve items at a food bank.

Lockyer recommends bringing young ones to visit the elderly in nursing homes or deliver Meals on Wheels. “Their presence makes the experience really beautiful, brightening the faces of the sad and lonely who live either away from home or on their own.” Toddlers can’t yet understand abstract concepts like altruism, so don’t expect little ones to truly get the concept of giving back—just let them enjoy the act of helping others.

ELEMENTARY YEARS (ages 6–12) Caring Connection School-age children have a host of new worries and responsibilities, from friend cliques to math homework, and they can be preoccupied with their own daily lives. They can also make excellent, caring volunteers, says licensed family therapist Jen S. Miller, M.Ed.; it’s all a matter of finding something that sparks a child’s interest. “When children have decision-making autonomy to choose the type of charity or organization they want to work with, it gives them additional motivation and empowerment,” she says.

Parents can present grade-schoolers with several options, preferably ones that relate to the child’s own life. Kids who have been bullied can volunteer with a group that advocates for bullying victims; pet lovers can work with animals; and bookworms can help out at a book drive. The benefits are multifaceted, says Miller; kids not only feel great about giving back, but also connect with others who share their struggles or interests.

TEEN YEARS (ages 13–18) Give and Take Though volunteering benefits kids of all ages, it’s especially meaningful for teens, who can more fully appreciate the concept of altruism, says Miller. “Through volunteering, they can grasp the good feelings of giving, instead of receiving, and apply more meaning to their lives and relationships.” That doesn’t mean giving back doesn’t have tangible personal benefits, says Lockyer. “Volunteering has become an increasingly important social and professional statement. Professional networking website LinkedIn has added a volunteer section where job-seekers can showcase volunteer experiences, and many colleges factor volunteer pursuits along with other extracurricular activities into admission decisions.”

Teens looking to get involved—and beef up a professional résumé or college application—can visit volunteermatch.org to connect with nonprofits based on their skills and experiences, he notes. “The earlier you begin volunteering and fostering your skills, the better.” 

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.