One of the great advantages of homeschooling is the opportunity to be deeply involved, on a daily basis, in the development of your child's character. And one of the ways we can help them develop compassion and necessary life skills is with volunteering.
First, I have a few things to say about the ways we encourage people to volunteer for a cause or to give to a charitable organization.
I don't believe in such things as an 'unfair advantage' or 'luck'. There's no need to feel guilty if you have a nice life. When parents work hard to feed, clothe, and shelter their children; they love and nurture them, pushing them to be responsible, caring members of society; they spend time, energy and money to ensure they have a solid education so they can succeed in life--then they are simply being a responsible parent. This should be described as 'a normal family', not 'privilege'.
Why? Because abject poverty, neglect, and abuse aren't and shouldn't be accepted as normal. Children aren't 'lucky' because their parents don't beat them. They aren't 'privileged' if there's actually nutritious food making it from the fridge to the table. Neglect and abuse are not the norm, and we should never imply a loving home is a magical 'only if you are fortunate' thing.1
Poverty is a tougher subject, but our society does have ways for families to still provide the basics for themselves and their children through government programs and charitable organizations. And if our goal is to bring families out of poverty and to the place where they can take care of themselves, we surely should not be stigmatizing those who are already there.
Wherever you fall on the socio-economic spectrum, if you are in a place where you can help others, you should. Period. And it is especially important for children to learn compassion and to be contributing members of society, even at a very early age. If you wait until they are teens to start encouraging them to be aware of the needs of others, that horse may be out of the corral and roaming the prairies in Montana.
Parents often focus on sheltering their children from harsh realities—which is a good thing, until that sheltering removes them so far from society that they are unprepared when the real world smacks them upside the head. Kids can handle knowing about sickness, starvation, and violence in the world, especially if we are teaching them how to make a difference.
So enough with the prologue--here are several compelling reasons why everyone, especially children, should volunteer for a cause that benefits those in need:
To make a difference.
Everything you do for others makes a difference. The butterfly effect of showing kindness, helping someone change their circumstances, or relieving suffering, even for a little while, is a valuable lesson for children and a touch of grace in the life of someone who desperately needs it. If God watches over sparrows, surely we should be teaching our children to make a difference when and where they can.
And there's nothing wrong with making our communities a nicer place to live. If we want to raise our children in a society where people are willing to invest in improving the health and well-being of others, then we need to invest in our communities.
Stories in the media sometimes make us feel like we have to be doing something amazing for it to matter, but to the person who you have helped, the smallest gesture of kindness and generosity may be the most amazing thing they've ever experienced. That's who we are doing this for, after all--not to be in a viral video. Right?
To learn about the world.
Volunteering offers a wealth of opportunities for children and adults to explore their abilities and talents, maybe discovering some they were not aware of. Children can learn social skills and future job skills, not the least of which are teamwork and a work ethic.
Children can also learn about how charitable agencies and organizations work; how the founders were inspired to fill a need, how they obtain funding, what the IRC 501(c)(3) designation means, and why others want to volunteer for a particular cause. This is all information children can apply to their growing understanding of the real world, and their place in it.
To learn about the specific needs in your community.
Many of us live in a rather homogeneous world by default. We are busy with family and work and church and activities, seeing the same people day in and day out. However, learning about cultural and ethnic diversity is important. Seeing the world from other perspectives enriches all of us.
Even more essential is for children to understand that regardless of our differences, we are still united by our human experience. Grief and joy feel the same no matter what your socio-economic or ethnic background. Our differences should not automatically cause fear or spark antagonism. It's part of the maturing process to seek to understand rather than ignore, dismiss or intimidate.
It's the responsible thing to do.
Volunteering is part of making your community a better place to live. We all want safe, friendly neighborhoods. But this doesn't happen without some involvement in that community, and we can all contribute to making our neighborhoods more peaceful and welcoming places:
- Improving the cleanliness and order of in your community's appearance, in theory, contributes to making it safer as well.
- Supporting education encourages others to educate themselves, offering them the opportunity to change their circumstances. Tutoring, or giving free reading, music, and art lessons is the "teach a man to fish" form of volunteerism.
- Relieving suffering when and where you can is the humane thing to do, and it may surprise you just how much suffering is taking place right around the corner from where you live. Opportunities to give abound, from food pantries to making blankets and hats to blood donation.
- Compassion and kindness are contagious, and we should never underestimate the influence volunteering can have on others, motivating them to volunteer as well.
It's part of being a healthy, well-rounded person.
Volunteering helps develop characteristics such as empathy, humility, teamwork, and self esteem. Many volunteer opportunities help children develop a work ethic, and nothing beats the feeling of camaraderie when you team up with others for something truly important.
Children need to learn that sometimes people fall on hard times because of things beyond their control--physical or mental illness, natural disaster, technological advances or an economic downturn resulting in the loss of a job, accidents, etc. In other words, it could happen to anyone, even you. We need to get away the usual stereotypes of the poor and disabled as being 'other' and somehow deserving of their difficulties.
It's OK to teach kids that it feels good to do good, and being a caring, unselfish person is its own reward. Encourage your kids experience the pleasure of giving.
Learn about commitment and citizenship.
I'm not one for forcing kids to commit to things like music lessons or sports. They can try it, and if it's not their thing, I'm fine with them trying something else. However, volunteering should be a serious commitment, and not a hobby. Kids can learn some things about obligation and sacrifice by giving their time, money, and energy to a cause beyond their own self interest.
It's also good to learn how to build relationship skills with people who are outside of your circle of friends and family. Many of the people you will meet—other volunteers as well as those you help--share the same goals and interests you have. Kids can be inspired by the example of others, especially with the dearth of healthy role models in today's celebrity-obsessed society. Children may also find themselves humbled by the courage and endurance in the people they are helping.
So are you convinced? Maybe now you are wondering about how kids can volunteer at a young age. That's the next post.