One Expert Tells All

When Is My Child Ready to Volunteer?

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How even the littlest kids can lend a hand and learn how to be caring and compassionate

One person can make a difference, but a family volunteering together reaps benefits for all involved. We spoke to Delores Morton, executive director of generationOn, the youth service division of Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, about age-appropriate opportunities and why volunteering as a family makes sense. Joanne Van Zuidam reports:

When, in general, are kids capable of volunteering?

Children as young as age four or five can begin volunteering. At that age, they have a spirit of wanting to share and be a part of things. That makes it easy for them to be introduced to volunteering, even without fully understanding what they are doing. Around age five or six, children begin to see and understand themselves in relation to other people. They still have limited understanding of what they are doing and why, but they are able to embrace the concept of what it means to be kind to others and how it makes people feel. It’s not until children get older, around eight years old or so, that they can understand the whys of volunteering and see what it is they are doing, and want to do, as it relates to serving others.

What kinds of opportunities are right for my child?

That depends—what are their interests? If they like to color, consider making cards for seniors in your community or cards to welcome veterans back home. Young children can decorate the card and you can write the message inside. As they get older, children can write the message inside the card (even if they are just copying a message in their handwriting). Later, they can use their artistic abilities to decorate cards inside and out. Eight- to ten-year-olds can work as a small group and tap their own individual skills to complete a project. A child with artistic skill can color, one who has a way with words can create the message, and another one with great penmanship can write it inside the card.

How do we find volunteer opportunities?

Start close to home—your child’s school community. Personnel at the local daycare, elementary school, and even public library or place of worship are often very familiar with issues facing families in the community and will know how (and where) to direct you. These are often the ideal people to connect with, since school staff is accustomed to working with young people and it makes the transition to volunteering simple as well.

But why do you suggest volunteering as a family? Aren’t Scouting and efforts based at schools or places of worship enough?

Being able to volunteer as a family helps kids understand that these are things that we value—caring about other people and being empathetic about the needs of others. Also, in volunteering as a family, you have an opportunity to continue the conversation with your child during the activity. So there is great value in that. That said, I also think that exposing children to other opportunities—at Scouts, school, or a place of worship—allows them to see that they’re part of a larger group beyond their family. This extends their perspective and broadens their knowledge and connection to the world.

Are there any precautions we should take when volunteering as a family?

Sometimes volunteering makes kids afraid of the world out there, even though what they’re doing is to make a change in the world. I think it’s important for families to consider what children can handle and make sure they understand they have a place in the world and they can make a difference. However, if your children fear seeing children who are sick, for example, avoid situations in which you may not be able to explain why these children are ill without making your own children upset.

OK, we’re in. How much time should we devote to service projects?

The amount of time can certainly vary based on the activity or task, but the exposure should be ongoing. If your kids volunteer on a regular basis, compared to just once a year, it becomes a part of who they are. Pitching in at a soup kitchen in their youth may make them more empathetic and more willing to feed the homeless and hungry later. It doesn’t take much time or effort. When volunteering for meal prep for the homeless, younger children can color the outside of the bags that will hold the food. Or, they can portion chips into small zip-top bags. They enjoy being part of the process with other people even if they don’t know exactly what they’re doing. When they are older, kids can begin setting goals—such as determining how many bags they’ll need to make to feed the homeless nearby. The more children are exposed to service, the more it becomes a part of their life.