Getting Kids to Give Back

How to make volunteering fun and rewarding for the whole family

As parents, we all hope to raise children who care about others and the world around them. Encouraging your kids to volunteer can help teach valuable lessons – and bring the whole family together. Whether you have 15 minutes or 15 hours, there are plenty of meaningful ways to get involved. Here, your primer to getting kids excited about giving back, and how to get started.

Reasons to Get Them Involved
No one questions that volunteering is a worthwhile pursuit, but not everyone realizes just how many benefits there are to the act of giving back. Kids who volunteer reap just as many rewards as the people they’re helping. “Even if you don’t think it’s important to raise your kids for the benefit of society, volunteering is one of the best things we can do for our children,” says Jenny Friedman, executive director of Doing Good Together.

Here are just a few ways that volunteering can build better kids:

  • It breaks down barriers and stereotypes, allowing them to see that we have a lot in common with people who seem different from us.
  • It instills gratitude and teaches kids that caring for others is even more satisfying than material gain.
  • It allows family members to connect on a much deeper level. You have conversations that wouldn’t be had otherwise, and it gives you a chance to reflect on values that are important to you.
  • It builds compassion and empathy. “People who volunteer are more successful in life, they’re happier, they’re less depressed and they do better in school,” says Friedman.
  • It empowers kids to become problem solvers. “They develop the idea that no matter how young you are, you can do something to make the world a better place,” says Chris Caruso, executive director of GenerationOn, an organization that inspires youth to take action.

Start Young
People who volunteer as children are more likely to donate their time as adults. “The earlier you start, the better, because you start them on a lifetime of giving back,” says Heather Jack, executive director of The Volunteer Family. You don’t have to wait until your kids understand what volunteering means before you do it, says Friedman, who likens it to learning how to read. If you read to your kids before they know how to read, they'll grow up thinking that’s just what you do in life. “They'll feel the same way about serving others,” says Friedman. “They'll grow up thinking this is what our family does together.” If you’re walking for charity, for instance, push your child in a stroller. If you’re visiting the senior center, bring along the little one.
Tamara Lee, a mom and children’s librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been taking her five-year-old son Xavier to Meals on Wheels for the past two-and-a-half years. “He has learned to be comfortable with people from all walks of life, races and belief systems,” says Lee. “He's also learning that everyone has value, and to have compassion for others.”

Doing Good at Home
When Friedman was looking for ways to volunteer with her young children, she came up with the idea of kitchen table projects. These do-at-home activities are perfect for moms with fussy toddlers, because you can do them anytime without the fear of a meltdown in the middle of a nursing home. These might include making greeting cards or care packages for sick children, nursing home residents or the homeless; decorating cookies or cupcakes for a shelter or soup kitchen; or (if the kids are older) making no-sew fleece blankets for homeless veterans or battered women. Get Friedman’s full list of kitchen table ideas at

Make Giving an Everyday Conversation
Getting your kids interested in helping others begins with Mom and Dad. “It's important that parents lead by example,” says Caruso. “When you're aware of your community and how you treat people, that behavior becomes engrained in your children.”
Janice Hurdle, a mom in Lake Park, Georgia, says she didn’t have much growing up, but if a neighbor needed food or clothing, her family was always there to help. “I just took for granted that that’s the way things were,” she says. Hurdle passed this belief on to her son, Clay, who was recently selected to be a member of GenerationOn’s Youth Advisory Council – a position granted to 10 extraordinary youths in the U.S. who are implementing change in their community.
If you see someone doing a good deed, point it out. Or, if you spot your child doing something kind for someone else, let him know you noticed it. Sarah Aadland, a mother of two (with another on the way) who writes for the Doing Good Together blog, incorporates the vocabulary of giving into her everyday life by asking questions like “Who did you help today?” and “Who helped you?” at the dinner table. Talk about how it makes the other person feel when you do a kind deed for them. These acts of everyday kindness can be teachable moments to inspire your kids.

Tap Into Their Interests
When you begin to have conversations with your kids about things like the environment or poverty, they will start latching onto issues that resonate with them. Aadland first got involved in volunteering when her oldest daughter started asking questions about the earthquake in Haiti. She explained in the simplest terms that people’s homes had fallen down and others were helping to rebuild them. Soon, she witnessed her daughter making up games in which she was helping to build homes for others.
When choosing a cause to get involved with, let your child’s interests guide you. Or, encourage them to come up with their own ideas. Caruso uses the example of back-to-school shopping. If you tell your kids that not everyone can afford school supplies like pencils and notebooks, they might say that makes them sad. So you can ask, “What do you think we could do about that?” “The more they’re invited to share their ideas, the more excited they’re going to be about giving back,” he says. Even if their ideas are outlandish–and sometimes they are, says Jack–it’s important to work with them to come up with something that feels like their own idea.

Finding the Right Opportunity
Once you’ve identified your child’s interests, your next step is figuring out how you can help. Some agencies, like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and animal shelters have age-restrictions—for good reasons, says Friedman. But you can still donate your time to those efforts by thinking outside of the box. “You might not be able to prepare food at the food pantry, but maybe you bring donations and get a tour, says Jack. "You might not be able to help at the dog shelter, but you can do a drive for dog food, or foster a pet or guide dog.” The other thing to keep in mind is that some situations might be scary for children, so it’s a good idea to call ahead, or go on your own before bringing your kids along. As Jack points out, “You really have to know your children and what they can handle.”

Make It Fun
Think of your charitable activity as quality time instead of something to check off your to-do list. “If it's a family activity, if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to do it,” says Friedman. After all, most moms and dads are already up to their eyeballs in obligatory duties. Inviting friends along (yours and theirs) makes it more social, and spreads the concept of giving back to other families. You can also turn your day at the soup kitchen into a special occasion by going out for sundaes together when you're done. Spending time together afterwards is a great way to connect and share your experiences. “It provides an opportunity to reflect on how it made you feel and how you made a difference,” says Friedman.

Getting Teens Involved
Think your brooding teenager won’t be interested in volunteering? Just because she’s glued to her cell phone or responds to your requests with eye-rolls doesn’t mean she’s disinterested. Far from it. A Corporation for National and Community Service study found that 55 percent of American teenagers volunteered in the past year–nearly double the rate of adults. “Teens want to feel some sort of independence," explains Caruso. "They want to believe that what they say matters, and they need to be validated.” For that reason, it’s best to put the ball in their court, by talking to them about how important it is to give back and make a difference in their community, and then finding out what they feel deeply about. What would they like to change if they could? If you do sense resistance, find out where it’s coming from, suggests Friedman. Maybe they’re embarrassed to be seen with their parents. That’s easily resolved by encouraging them to get involved with their friends, or by doing something as a family from home. “If you can do it in a way that encourages them to make the decision, it’s far, far better than forcing them,” says Caruso.

Work with the Elderly
All of the experts we talked to recommended working with the elderly to help kids connect to our oldest generation. “Old age is a natural part of life, but it’s hard for kids to speak to seniors,” laments Friedman. Getting your children to interact with them from an early age helps erase that discomfort. You can start by bringing your kids along to deliver food for Meals on Wheels. Homebound seniors depend just as much on the smiling faces as they do on the hot food, and often light up at the sight of a baby or a small child.
Aadland and her daughters started delivering food for Meals on Wheels when the girls were just three and five. “They were puzzled by people’s health problems, and I fielded a lot of questions in the car about oxygen tanks and missing limbs,” explains Aadland. This, she says, has helped prepare them for real life. When their grandmother was recently hospitalized, they weren’t shocked by the sight of sick people.
If Meals on Wheels isn’t your thing, you can also bring the kids with you to help in nursing homes or at your local senior center.

You Don’t Need a Ton of Time
Don’t have time for grand gestures of good will? Volunteering doesn’t have to be a major time suck. You can help others in everyday ways–without carving hours from your day. According to Friedman, you can weave simple acts into your life and make them meaningful. “If you go grocery shopping with your child, pick up one extra thing on your grocery trip. You can have a conversation about what would be good to donate, and involve your child in the decision process. Keep a box in your kitchen and drop it in, and when the box is full, donate it together. It takes 15 minutes a month.” Or do what Aadland does every time she takes her kids to the park: have a trash pick-up race. Everyone has to collect five pieces of garbage before they get to play. Now, she says, she can’t go anywhere without the kids trying to clean up their earth.

Spend with Kindness
Even something as simple as writing a check can become a meaningful project. Jack recommends doing your charitable donations as a family. Even if you only have $50 or $100 to contribute a year, sit down with your kids and have a thoughtful conversation about where you’d like your money to go. “It gives your kids a voice,” says Jack.  And it teaches them that money isn’t just about buying clothes and video games. It can also help others who are less fortunate than we are. And that kind of life lesson is priceless.


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