During the holidays, most families look for opportunities to be together. Children are out of school, vacation plans are in place and the road trips, football, food, music and traditions make it a perfect time to connect with others. But does it all need to be relaxing, kicking back, and endless conversation? There is another “tradition” that can add to the magic of the holidays: volunteering.
Yes, it’s true! Giving back in service to our friends and neighbors draws us closer to each other while also setting a positive example for children and teens as they journey from birth to career. Volunteerism creates a sense of belonging, sharpens life-skills, boosts confidence, and improves self-esteem. Meaningful volunteer opportunities can be found through soup kitchens, animal shelters, libraries, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross or your local YMCA. Every day at the Y we see firsthand how giving back transforms the well-being of the 600,000 community members who roll-up their sleeves each year to be part of projects in their neighborhoods. In fact, a recent survey of volunteers conducted by United Healthcare found that 94 percent of people experienced an improved mood, 96 percent developed a greater sense of purpose, and 78 percent had reduced stress—all as a result of giving back.
Fostering volunteerism in children and teens can turbo-charge their life-skills, enabling them to be prepared for whatever developmental milestone life throws at them, and strengthening their ability to reach their full potential. Here are some ways to incorporate volunteerism into your family’s day-to-day life:
Talking to your children about gratitude will model thankfulness. Discussions around the dinner table can help teach basic human needs, how those needs are typically met and what role your children can play in filling those needs of others. Once you know what your children are interested in, be on the lookout for opportunities (causes, ministries, drives, donations, activities) to connect them to those passions.
Involve the Whole Family.
Empathy and responsibility are better understood when demonstrated rather than defined. If you’re regularly involved with charity walks, food drives and other philanthropic events, then you should get your children involved, too. You will find that charitable family outings often turn into lifelong, transformational habits.
Instead of stockpiling toys and birthday gifts, many children are opting to donate their items to support a cause that interests them. Encourage your child to donate her lightly used items to a local foundation or organization, such as Toys for Tots, local holiday Angel Tree programs or Adopt a Family Programs, and model the same practice in your own life.
As parents, we are often quick to respond to misbehavior in order to stop a child’s bad habits. Similarly, good behavior should also be encouraged and recognized. Celebrate when your child demonstrates caring for others.
The urge tovolunteer should be selfless and without the expectation of a reward. As role models, we should be careful not to spoil an act of caring by accepting a reward or some sort of payment. Teach your children to help just because there is a need. Opportunities like helping the elderly, mowing a lawn and shoveling snow can easily be considered a job. A simple “thank you” is the payment that transforms. Loving for the sake of love is where one discovers purpose, meaning and contentment.
A recent Harvard study highlighted that there is a disconnect between the expectations of parents and children. While parents believe they are making caring a priority, their children indicate that they believe their parents principally expected good grades over caring. This study revealed the need of adults to be more intentional about teaching and modeling service if they hope to raise caring and service-minded children.
For information about volunteering opportunities in your community, visit http://www.ymca.net/be-involved/.
Jorge Perez is VP of Youth Development, Family Enrichment and Social Responsibility for YMCA of the USA, the national resource office for 2,700 Ys across the country. With an emphasis on social-emotional development and a cradle-to-career framework, Jorge oversees the implementation and scaling of programs that help youth succeed in school and life.