Children and Volunteerism: Making the World a Better Place

Do you ever feel that the hectic holiday rushing takes the meaning and spirit out of these special times?

Below, John Rosemond, author of Parenting by the Book offers some useful ideas to incorporate principles and morals into the holiday season:

When President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, said “ask not what this country can do for you, but what you can do for this country,” he was reminding us that self-sacrifice and community service are the cornerstones of a viable democracy; that, in fact, they are values without which a democratic society cannot long endure.

Volunteerism – the general willingness to go beyond the parochial call of self-interest – as a state of action as well as of mind was integral to the spirit of the American Revolution. America’s Founding Fathers understood that freedom was not simply a privilege, but a duty – that in order to remain free, a people must be willing to contribute freely toward the common good. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and their visionary colleagues understood that volunteerism checks the insidious growth of government, a concern that was uppermost in their minds.

That community-centered spirit has permeated the fabric of American life for more than two hundred years. Today, recognized as the essence of good citizenship, volunteerism manifests itself in the activities of Eagle Scouting, Habitat for Humanity, Junior Leagues, Rotary Clubs, and numerous other civic-minded organizations across the nation. In 1989, President Bush made the call to community service national policy as part of his Points of Light Initiative. The president’s three-part strategy included the call to claim society’s ills as our own; to identify, enlarge, and multiply community-based volunteerism initiatives that are already working; and to discover and develop leaders who can continue invigorating those grassroots efforts.

Indeed, community service means much more than simply tossing a few bucks into a bucket or checking off a payroll deduction to your company’s favorite charity. It’s relatively easy to give money. What’s required is that we be willing to give of ourselves, to make sacrifice in terms of our energy and our time. It’s also necessary that we pass this value from generation to generation by teaching our children the relationship between volunteerism, good citizenship, and the continuing maintenance of democracy.

Volunteerism Begins At Home

Turning a child into a good citizen is the crux of the socialization process, which begins during toddlerhood. Courtesy of parents who understand the importance of setting and enforcing limits on behavior and appetites, a child none-too-quickly comes to accept that he isn’t the center of the universe.

Turning the tyrant of toddlerhood into a functional member of the community requires that the family serve as a microcosm of society. In effect, the family must require of the child what the community will eventually require of him – honesty, responsibility, respect for others, a willingness to share, industriousness, and so on. These social values must also be family values, and they must be as much a part of the child’s daily life as three square meals.

Parents can begin teaching the social value of volunteerism by assigning to a child as young as three a daily routine of household chores. First, the child learns to pick up after himself, take care of his own possessions, and keep his room orderly. As the child becomes more capable, the routine expands into common areas of the home. The child learns to vacuum, mop floors, wash dishes, and eventually, do his or her own laundry and assist in the preparation of meals. In the process, the child learns that being a member of a family involves not just sharing the family’s wealth, but its work as well. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, the child learns to ask “not what the family can do for him, but what he can do for the family.” And by the way, this lesson is less effectively learned – if it is ever learned at all – when parents pay for chores. Giving a child money for accepting a fair share of family responsibilities teaches him to ask not “what can I do to help?” but “what’s in it for me”?

Show and Tell

Parents can impress upon children the importance of community service with a simple civics lesson: Pointing out that without volunteer support, there would be no community sports programs, no scouting, no 4-H or Future Homemakers, no shelters for the homeless, no Sunday School classes, no neighborhood playground, no summer programs at the local “Y”; likewise, pointing out how essential volunteers are to neighborhood organizations, public and private schools, nursing homes, churches, hospitals, the care of the handicapped and chronically-ill. Is there a volunteer fire department in your community? How about a local Red Cross chapter? A children’s museum? Indeed, the list of volunteer-dependent organizations and activities within a community is almost endless. The fact is, volunteers form the backbone of our communities, making them better places for us all to live, to work, to play. Challenge your children to recognize volunteer efforts when they see them and likewise take note when they are lacking. Volunteering, especially at a young age, encourages compassion for others.

And when voluntary effort is lacking in some aspect of your community’s life, what’s to stop you from taking the initiative yourself? Seize the teachable moment and explore ways that you and your children can fill in “volunteerism gaps” that you have identified together.

See that unsightly trash along the neighborhood creek? Rather than grouse that “somebody ought to do something about that mess,” why not be that very somebody? Organize a neighborhood team to clean it up and include the kids. As they learn the importance of taking initiative and following a task through to completion, they’ll also be practicing what I call the “Three Rs of Good Citizenship”:

Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness.

In these and similar ways, parents can teach that one person can make a difference in this world. As Eugene M. Land, founder and chairman of the I Have a Dream Foundation, has written: “Magnitude or complexities must not immobilize or depreciate the ability of any person to contribute meaningfully to solutions.” In other words, when you see a problem, go the extra mile and find the solution. In effect, be the solution.

In The Pudding, Find The Proof

Consider the families who have already made a commitment to community service. Last summer, a Gallup survey of over 1,000 American households found that in more than one-third of all households, and in nearly half of all middle-income households, volunteering is a big part of family life. Among families with adults in their middle years, some 35 percent of parents volunteer alongside their children. The numbers also tell us that once the pattern is established, family volunteering tends to become a tradition. Eighty percent of the volunteers interviewed had been serving with another family member for three years or more.

And while it’s true that volunteering is a way to solve problems while helping other people, that’s only the beginning. In the same Gallup poll, when participants were asked to describe the main benefit they receive from volunteering, more than half cited personal satisfaction.

In the forward to the excellent reference book Volunteerism, The Committee on Marshaling Human Resources says the volunteer not only improves the community, but himself as well. They cite “the contact it provides with other people – the companionship, the friendship, the fellowship of working with others on a common goal.” In short, parents who help their children learn the value of serving others are contributing immeasurably to their children’s lives – present and future.

A couple of friends of mine, themselves active in numerous volunteer initiatives, make community service a “family affair” as often as possible. As one example, every Christmas the whole family takes several underprivileged children shopping for clothes and toys. As they recently told me, “The benefits to the family, and especially the children, are inestimable. They already understand that the value of life is not measured in terms of what you have, but what you give. For example, although we could certainly afford to purchase for them most of the materialistic trophies their friends have acquired, our children ask for very little.”

Several years ago, other friends began requiring that each of their three pre-teen and teenage children become involved in a sustained volunteer effort of choice (scouting, Hospital Auxiliary, Junior Civitan) for every extracurricular activity or organization (team sport, cheerleading, social club) they joined. The children’s mother: “At this point, the kids are more energized by their community service than they are their soccer and such. Perhaps the most rewarding thing to their father and I is the comments other people make concerning their maturity.”

Where To Start

Here are some suggested starting points if you’re interested in getting your children involved in community service:
• Check out the volunteer opportunities available through your local hospital, nursing homes, and community mental health center.

• Look for a Volunteer Action Center whose purpose is to steer volunteers toward opportunities that are mutually beneficial and enjoyable. These local centers refer an estimated half million new volunteers each year who provide more than 100 million hours of service annually.

• Contact your local Red Cross, your state’s Governor’s Office on Volunteering, or one of the 3,000 plus United Way offices across the country.

• Call the Nationwide Hotline on Volunteer Opportunities (toll-free, 800-424-8867 ) for information about the national service network that encompasses VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), the National Civilian Community Corps, and the AmeriCorps initiative which President Clinton referenced in his most recent State of the Union address.

• Check into Learn and Serve America, a federal program that seeks to involve children in community service as part of their school curriculum.

• Yet another noteworthy program, Super Volunteers!, directs the energies and enthusiasm of children toward improving the quality of life in their own communities while drawing support and sponsorship from business and industry, churches and synagogues. “We work within existing youth groups such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Campfire, Special Olympics, where there’s an already-existing leadership structure,” says president Harriet L. Kipps. To find out more about Super Volunteers! call (703)354-6270 .

Matching the child to the volunteer effort insures not only that the child will stick with it, but the greatest benefit for all concerned. Older youths, for example, could let career interests guide them: Aspiring doctors might serve in a hospital environment; future military leaders can join the Civil Air Patrol; environmentalists could lend their energies to a local nature conservancy. Guiding a younger child toward compatible community service requires that parents help the child answer the following questions:

• What are my interests? What do I really enjoy?
• What’s something I’ve always wanted to do?
• Would I prefer working with large or small groups? Indoors or out?
• What are three problems in my community or elsewhere that need solutions?

With the long stretch of vacation ahead, why not resist the urge to “veg and let veg” and instead dedicate a healthy portion of your family’s summer to some public-spirited volunteer effort? Believe me, once the ball is rolling, it will be impossible to stop!

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at

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  1. I really appreciate this article at this time of the year. We have already discussed with our children that for every new toy the receive, we will be giving one old toy to the local children’s charity. This will keep the true spirit of Christmas alive and free our home of clutter. Thank you for all the suggestions, I will book mark this page.

  2. Thank you for encouraging us to engage our children in volunteering from a young age! Not only does serving together an awesome family experience, Children who volunteer with their families are much more likely to become life long volunteers – and that’s what builds healthy communities! VolunteerSpot has put together a free eBook filled with service ideas for families and groups (Scouts, youth groups, service learning at school, etc.). They also have a free online tool which makes it super easy to signup volunteers – neighbor-to-neighbor, kind of like Evite.

  3. I have to agree the benefits of volunteering are long lasting. I took my first born son to the nursing home once a week for three years starting from the age of 4 months. I sang hymns with the residents before one of our church’s pastors shared a message. I started taking him because of a comment one time when I was visiting my grandmother in her nursing home, “I wish I had a baby come visit me.” These residents really enjoyed seeing him week to week for they recognize the preciousness of a young life and appreciate how quickly a baby grows up. Most live in a world where there are not many differences from day to day but the changes from a baby to a toddler as my son grew were theirs to share in as we went week after week. Now I would have to say that this son is still the most caring and empathetic of all my children. So I would definitely encourage moms or dads to look for places where your family can serve together- the benefits are priceless.

  4. Dear Ellen,

    I really have enjoyed and learnt much from these ideas about volunteerism. More and more I have the idea that one of the most basic lessons for all young children is to learn that everything we create needs to be appreciated and maintained. I observe each day how maintenance is something which is very often missing in education. It can be exciting to create a house, school, company, dance group, football club etc. The great secret however is how are we going to maintain what we have created. Imagine if our children learned right from the first lesson about maintaining everything that they used each day. Cleaning is maintaining health in our bodies and in our minds; tidying is maintaining order and space for better growth; looking after things is the beginning of taking care of the earth’s resources in a very real way; repairing things is respecting and loving the original nature of things; feeding and caring for things teaches us about what it is that we really need and value and so forth. I find the whole idea of maintaining life exciting and not in the least oppressive! Volunteerism could also be viewed as maintenance of our society. loving greetings, Annette