It is the time of year when many of us plan big family meals, decorate our homes and start holiday shopping. At the same time, we have all heard the phrase “it’s better to give than to receive.” So amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, how do we teach our children to go beyond consumerism to focus on gratitude and the needs of others?
November is National Philanthropy Month, so now is the perfect time to engage our children in community service. Not only will recipients of the service or donation benefit, but participation in civic engagement also offers clear benefits to kids.
Philanthropy both facilitates and fosters youth development, says Jill Gordon, program director of the Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana. Research shows that community service can help young children develop feelings of empathy for others. These can be simple interactions. Donating food or outgrown clothing increases the ability of children under ten to understand the experiences and needs of others. Volunteerism among teens is linked to lower rates of drug use and pregnancy, and teen volunteers are more likely to have stronger academic outcomes and lower risks of suicide. Research also shows that kids involved in community service grow into adults who typically have a stronger work ethic, continue to volunteer and have higher voting rates.
Child Trends, a leading child research institution, found teen volunteerism rates have increased in recent years. More than a third of high school seniors report volunteering at least once a month. Rates are higher in youth planning to attend college, and female students are more likely to volunteer than males, with the gender gap growing between eighth, 10th and 12th grades. Within Indiana, 43.2 percent of children ages 6 to 17 volunteered in 2016, placing us at the national average but slightly below rates in neighboring states.
Youth philanthropy is as diverse and unique as children themselves. More than a decade ago The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis started the Power of Children Awards to showcase kids who make a difference in their communities. From helping seniors access email, to increasing educational opportunities for girls in India, to supporting children undergoing cancer treatment, the efforts and impact of these young philanthropists is nothing short of amazing. The one consistent factor in these kids’ dedication, says Debbie Young, director of volunteer services with the Museum, is that they are driven by something that has impacted their lives. They identify, engage, and/or design projects that hold special meaning for them.
Nonprofit organizations and schools can spark kids’ interest by showing young people how to translate their passions and skills into action. Gordon suggests we actively talk to children about community needs and the impact nonprofits have within their community and state. Many community organizations offer family volunteer options, allowing parents and children to serve side-by-side.
Community foundations across Indiana actively engage young leaders, and countless school groups coordinate giving and service opportunities. For example, the Dekko Foundation, based in Kendallville, has a long tradition of engaging teens, placing value on meaningful philanthropic opportunities at home, school and within the community. Above all, experts advise that young people have a voice in and ownership of their commitment.
Teaching children the value of civic engagement and volunteerism often starts at home. Parents can help children as young as three learn the behaviors and attitudes associated with community service – the ideas of caring and sharing. Elementary students often start basic giving and service projects through faith-based and afterschool programs, such as the Scouts. We should talk to middle school children about their place in their community, including direct paths for impact. By high school, students can understand complex problems, including ways they can contribute to solutions. At each age, parents and family members serve as crucial role models for giving back.
Like many of the skills we teach our children, philanthropy takes practice. Yet with benefits such as increased confidence, improved collaboration skills, and a greater sense of community, training our children to serve has great rewards. During this period of thankfulness and beyond, we can all embody the spirit of Hoosier hospitality by teaching our children to take care of our neighbors, our communities and our world.
(Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI)
Additional Resources: Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana’s A Path to Growing Lifelong Philanthropists