From the February 2015 issue

Raising Children Who Volunteer

Over 15 million kids – around 55 percent – volunteer, mostly through religious, school or youth organizations, the Corporation for National & Community Service notes. And giving back with kids in tow fosters family bonding and valuable lessons in empathy and community building. But kids aren’t always willing helpers. Here are some ways you can change that.

Preschool years, ages 2-5

Don’t assume kids need to be in school 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 online giving platform everydayhero.com. It helps teach skills like communication, empathy and respect for others – and sparks interest for future volunteering. Tykes can help plant community gardens, pick up litter for an outdoor cleanup, sort and stack donated clothing or 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.” Toddlers can’t yet understand abstract concepts like altruism – so just let them enjoy helping others.

Elementary years, ages 6-12

School-age children have new worries and responsibilities, from friend cliques to math homework – and can be preoccupied with their daily lives. They can also make excellent, caring volunteers, says family therapist Jen S. Miller of North Carolina. It’s a matter of finding something that sparks a kid’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.”

Parents can present grade schoolers with several options. Perhaps kids who have been bullied can volunteer with a group that advocates for bullying victims. Pet lovers can work with animals. Bookworms can help out at a book drive. Kids not only feel great about giving back, Miller says, but they also connect with others who share their struggles or interests.

Teen years, ages 13-18

Volunteering is especially meaningful for teens, who can 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 personal benefits, says Lockyer. “Volunteering has become an increasingly important social and professional statement.” For instance, professional networking website LinkedIn has a section where job seekers showcase volunteer experiences. And many colleges factor them into admission decisions. Teens can visit volunteermatch.org to connect with nonprofits based on their skills and experiences. “The earlier you begin volunteering and fostering your skills,” he adds, “the better.”

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