When my kids were much younger, I was asked by a friend if I’d like to join The Junior League in our suburban town. I was flattered she would consider me, but after looking at the membership requirements (i.e. time commitment) I almost laughed in her face. Going crazy trying to squeeze in freelance writing work and keep my house managed with two kids under the age of six, I couldn’t imagine also having the pressure of performing a certain amount of required service hours and getting kicked out if I didn’t. How did my friend do it with two young children herself? (Um, on second thought, I think having a nanny and housekeeper probably helped her a lot…)
Fast forward about eight years, and another friend is asking if Daughter #1 and I might want to join her chapter of National Charity League Inc., a nationwide organization that involves mothers and daughters (in grades 7-12) working side-by-side doing philanthropic work in the community and also being involved in cultural and social activities together as well. I had balked when we’d been asked a year earlier—there was that phrase “required hours” again, in the membership information, and our schedule seemed busier than ever before. But this time when we were asked, my daughter really wanted to do it, and so I said yes. Not just for the social activities that I knew she wanted to be a part of, but also because she and I had seen organizations on the NCL list of philanthropies for which she had already been interested in volunteering, such as Special Olympics, and so I thought it would be a great way for her to do this, and a learning opportunity. Oh, I knew I’d learn something, too, and help those in need—I’ve been a volunteer in every community I’ve ever lived in, since I was a teen. But I had no idea it would provide me with some rare opportunities to spend “sass-free” time with my daughter, really fun quality time, without the usual parent/child tug-of-war. And now that I’ve got two teen daughters in the organization, I see the benefits of volunteering alongside them even more.
Doing volunteer work with your child helps each of you see each other in a different light, in different ways. For example, I knew my younger daughter had a heart for animals, but to hug and hold a shaking dog who’d just arrived at the animal shelter, where we were volunteering, and talk to him sweetly for an hour until he quit shaking—who knew? And I knew that my older daughter was interested in helping the disabled, but to actually have a knack for it, to work with all ages and be able to interpret what someone with severe speech impediments was saying when no one else could—who knew?
And, when you volunteer together, while you and your kids are waiting to high-five a Special Olympics runner when he crosses the finish line or while you’re organizing craft supplies to help kids make hats at a local arts festival, you talk. While you’re driving around delivering Meals on Wheels to senior citizens, you talk some more. And after you’ve stuffed school supply bags for children from abusive homes or sorted books at a hospital “children’s library”, you go to lunch at that new burger joint you’ve always wanted to try. Or get some frozen yogurt. And you talk some more. And when you get back home and things get back to the routine of “mom’s uncool and unreasonable”, you know that all hope is not lost.
I highly encourage parents to set up regular community volunteer work with their children, either through an organization like NCL (for moms and sons, the equivalent is Young Men’s Service League), or Scouts, or church, or simply on your own or with a group of friends. Several organizations have volunteering opportunities for kids under 13 and the opportunities expand as kids get older. And if possible, find an organization that holds you accountable for contributing a certain amount of your time. Huh? Me endorsing “required hours” for busy parents? Yep, especially when you’re working with teens. I mean, think about it (and a lot of parents would probably agree): If a parent sets up a volunteer opportunity on their own, it might be pretty tough to get their teen to actually wake up on a Saturday to go and work at a shelter, charity 5k, etc.— especially if it’s with a PARENT. It could turn into a nag-fest. And if the teen was asked to set up the volunteer opportunity on their own to have more “skin in the game”, many would not take the first step. But there is something very motivating about having to check in online and report hours to an Hours Committee, who, in our group, are usually moms we know. And it’s motivating to commit to a volunteer job by signing up online through our chapter’s web calendar, a calendar that all members can view. With some volunteer work within our chapter, several moms and daughters are needed at one time, and for those jobs, we know that others are expecting us to be there and help out. They’re helping to hold my teens and me accountable.
But, not everyone lives in a community with groups like this. If you do set up something on your own and need a motivator for your child, possibly tying service work to allowance might be good (must do chores and an hour of volunteer work with you every two weeks to receive full allowance?), or certain “extra” privileges at home could be granted for community service work—staying up later on weekends, extra hour of computer time, etc. (but never punishments for not being charitable—you want them to be excited about helping others). Of course, in time, the hope is that the good feeling they will get from helping others (not to mention the fun spent with Mom or Dad) will be inspiration enough to turn them into lifelong volunteers.
As they approach college, there is one more motivator: getting to list community service on college and scholarship applications. Many older teens scramble to find ways to volunteer and “beef up that resume”. But parents shouldn’t get lost in the rush– take advantage of this new-found motivation and spend some quality time with a kid who’s leaving home soon. Try to work side by side with them as they put in these hours. Don’t look at volunteer work, as I’ve seen some parents approach it, as a way to keep kids busy and “out of the way” so you can concentrate on doing other things. Yes, I know as well as anybody that being around a teen for any length of time can be an emotional drain and a downer, but if you never volunteer alongside that teen, you’re missing the chance to have an “up” experience with them. Yes, there have been times when I’ve still had to nag, and yes, there have been times when my oldest has wanted to quit after putting in these volunteer hours for almost four years, but she stays with it, probably because she remembers that every experience we’ve had volunteering together has been positive, even when we’ve driven 15 miles in the rain to find that an event was canceled.
Because when that happened, we still got to talk during the long drive. And since we’d already set aside three hours in our schedules that day, we still ended up spending the time together—at the mall.