By Jenny Friedman
What if you could find a way to spend time with your children that was free, fun, rewarding, and helpful to others as well? What if that activity also provided a powerful antidote to our culture's incessant messages of competition, self-absorption, and materialism?
The answer just may be family volunteering. Researchers and parents agree that family volunteering gives you a hands-on way to teach children the values of kindness, compassion, tolerance, community responsibility, and good citizenship. It may also provide one of the few opportunities young people have to interact with people of other backgrounds, breaking down stereotypes of age, class, and race. Children can better put their own problems in perspective when they see what others struggle with. Engaging together in volunteerism can also be a valuable opportunity for family members to discuss important social issues and to make a real difference in the community while spending time with loved ones.
Once established, volunteering together often becomes a long-standing family tradition. Stephen Covey, who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, writes, "Can you imagine anything more energizing, more unifying, more filled with satisfaction than working with members of your family to accomplish something that really makes a difference in the world?" Plus, adults who began volunteering as youth are twice as likely to volunteer as those who did not, and those who volunteered as youth and whose parents volunteered are most generous of all. Thus by doing community service work with our kids, we create a whole new generation of philanthropists and volunteers.
Despite these enormous benefits, today's families are so scattered and busy that many hesitate to commit to "one more thing." But ironically, a hurry-up lifestyle is one of the best reasons for families to volunteer together. Family service enables parents and kids to serve others while also giving family members an oasis of meaningful time together to express shared values.
You don't need much time. Even if you have less than an hour to spend, you and your children can create a greeting card for a sick child, clean litter from your local park, write a letter to free a prisoner of conscience, or put together a school supply kit or health kit for a disaster survivor. You could volunteer just one day per year—for example, on Martin Luther King Day or at the holidays. Or you can take an hour or two once a month or once each week to mentor a child, "adopt" a grandparent at your local nursing home, serve a meal at a homeless shelter, or work on an environmental project. Regardless of your schedule, children's ages, or family interests, there's a service opportunity you can weave into your life.
How to get started? First, try to involve all family members in choosing the volunteer project. If everyone feels included, they will be more committed to making it work. Consider your family's skills, talents, and personality traits, plus how much time you're able to commit. You'll find plenty of ideas at Doing Good Together, your local volunteer center, or Idealist.org. Once you've picked a project, describe it to your children and make clear why the job is important. (Everyone likes to know they're making a difference, children included!) Also explain why you're looking forward to the experience. Enthusiasm is contagious!
Just as important, make a point to discuss and reflect on your experiences. This can be one of the most valuable parts of family service. Even before you begin volunteering, try to read books with your children that focus on caring for others (The Legend of Bluebonnet by Tomie De Paola), service to the community (Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan), and social issues (The Lorax by Dr. Seuss). These books can help you initiate conversations about the value of community involvement. You can find a complete list of resources for children of all ages at the Doing Good Together website.
Finally, build on the experience so your family will be further enriched by it. Ask questions about the project you've completed. ("What did you learn that you didn't know before?" "What would you do differently next time?") Your family can create a scrapbook or photo album of your service experience or write a letter to a friend or relative describing it. Always emphasize with your child what you've accomplished and what difference it made. ("The woman was certainly delighted when you handed her the meal and spoke with her. You may have been the only visitor she had all day.")
Sure, you're busy. Yes, life seems too full for another commitment. But if you begin small and have fun, it won't be long before serving others will be another treasured family ritual—as memorable as reading to your children or celebrating the holidays. And you'll have started a cycle of giving and sharing that's likely to extend for generations.
Jenny Friedman is the executive director of Doing Good Together, a Minneapolis, MN-based nonprofit that encourages and supports family volunteering among families with children between infancy and adolescence. She is also the author of The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering.