For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Home and Family Life

The Virtues of Volunteering: How to get your child or teen involved in your community

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Kids volunteering at rooftop garden

It's not always easy for families to stay connected today. Parents and children get pulled in different directions—work, school, athletic and social events. As schedules become more and more crowded, finding family time gets more and more difficult. One way to help stay connected is for parents and kids to volunteer together for community projects.

During the recent economic downturn, organizations reported a greater need for volunteers. More than one-third of Americans volunteer their time to others, according to a recent Gallup poll. As parents model active involvement in their communities, children and adolescents can learn about the caring and sharing, giving and taking that lead to a sense of belonging—to their families, and also to a wider world beyond the home.

In addition to the obvious benefits that volunteering brings to the people and organizations that are helped, it also brings a number of benefits to both kids and the family as a whole:

  • Children who see their parents volunteering learn the value of  giving back to their community and how each of us can make the world a better place, starting with where we live.  
  • Kids gain a wider perspective on the diverse ways in which people live. They learn to respect people of different backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, and income levels.
  • Bonding occurs when families work together as a team and focus on a task.
  • Children and adolescents gain self-esteem and develop confidence and a sense of pride as they discover that what they do can make a difference.

Children gain valuable life skills and experiences such as:

  • Making and keeping a commitment, including how to be on time and complete assignments.
  • Gaining exposure to a variety of settings – political and civic organizations, hospitals, clinics, schools, and volunteer groups. This can plant the seeds for a future career, or simply give insight into how these institutions work.
  • Working as a team and possibly taking on leadership roles.
  • Experiencing some control over what happens in their own lives and communities.
  • Developing a new appreciation of what they have by being exposed to others whose circumstances may be different. For instance, a middle-school age child who is constantly agitating for the latest toy may have a different perspective after encountering homeless families while volunteering at a soup kitchen.

There are also some distinct benefits for children with certain mental health diagnoses:

  • Kids who have attention deficit and/or hyperactivity disorders can put that energy to great use outside the confines of the classroom and home, where so many tasks require sitting and concentrating for extended periods of time. For older kids, a building project like those sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, or volunteering at a park or community garden, could provide a great outlet and a chance to build self-esteem. In these settings, the issues often perceived as a problem can potentially become a strength.
  • Many children with mental health disorders have difficulty gaining acceptance from their peers. Volunteering to work with younger kids in a big brother or big sister program, or visiting older people in a nursing home, can be a great source of validation and self-esteem and build social confidence.

Getting started

Contact community agencies such as hospitals, clinics, religious organizations, boys and girls clubs, and charities. The Internet provides a wealth of information about volunteer opportunities, and many local communities have volunteer clearinghouses.

Think about practical matters such as your child's interests and abilities, your own interests and abilities, location, amount of time available, method of transportation, and other logistics.

Avoid making unrealistic time commitments, and take children's ages into consideration. Younger children, for example, may need shorter sessions than teenagers. Consider your child's individual temperament. A shy child may need to start slowly; an overly exuberant child may function best with structure.

Start early and keep it simple. If your child has a particular interest, you can use it as a springboard into volunteering. For example, a child who loves animals may enjoy helping out at an animal society or shelter.

Positive early experiences with other people and with their community form the basis for children's growing appreciation of the wider world. Young and early elementary school children want to please others and would benefit from short, action-oriented tasks, rather than sedentary projects.

Families and younger children can volunteer together:  

  • to help clean up and beautify a playground or a beach 
  • work at a community food bank
  • take on a home baking project for a fund-raising bake sale
  • collect food and clothing for emergency relief
  • work at a community garden that provides fresh produce to the hungry
  • make small picture or notebooks for local hospital waiting rooms for children to doodle on  
  • plant flowers or otherwise help maintain local parks or school grounds
  • bring simple gifts or home cooked meals to sick or shut-in neighbors
  • spend time at a facility for elderly people; read, play games and hear their stories, and learn to interact with people of different generations

With a few adjustments, the above activities can be appropriate for just about any age. Older kids have even more options available.

Middle school kids are enthusiastic about contributing to a cause, and although they are capable of planning, they still need some adult guidance. Children of this age can:

  • tutor younger children
  • sew, make, or repair items needed for local shelters
  • care for animals in a shelter or volunteer to pet-sit for friends or neighbors
  • join in the fund-raising efforts of a charity of their choice
  • work on projects to improve their own environments, such as shoveling snow, raking leaves, or cleaning sidewalks at a local park

High school students, who are capable of relating and responding to the concerns and needs of others in a more mature way, can take a broad view. They can:

  • identify community needs and create plans of action
  • provide childcare
  • teach children and adults how to read
  • work in the offices of schools, clubs, and community organizations
  • organize a car wash or another type of fund-raising event with proceeds going to benefit a nonprofit organization or a specific cause
  • volunteer at a homeless shelter
  • get involved in an environmental group

Children do best when they live in a home where each individual's contribution to the well-being of the family and the functioning of family life is appreciated.

Whether it's done as a family or by an individual child, volunteering translates these attitudes and qualities to the world at large. It is never too early to engage children in charitable activities, and no act is too small—teach toddlers to share toys, have your child accompany you when bringing home baked cookies to a new neighbor, or encourage your teen to volunteer in an after-school program for younger kids. These actions allow children and teens to understand their value as a person, and to value others—and helping others—as well.

First published in February 2007.
Updated August 2011.