As a mother of three, I know a thing or two about inertia. For example, children will remain inactive where chores are concerned unless an external force jars them from their steady state. Most of the time that force is parental in nature. But when it comes to the chores of our society, community service, I’ve observed a different dynamic at work.
So what’s behind the gravitational pull of giving back? As a mother, it warms my heart to think they’d find helping at home as gratifying as giving their time to strangers. But that’s just not how it works. Try a little experiment sometime. Ask your kids if they’d rather feed and walk the dog or volunteer together at a local food pantry assembling meal kits for homeless families. Most offspring will opt for the day of manual labor. But if you think about it from your children’s perspective, their preference for helping strangers isn’t so strange at all.
Think about hierarchy. Doing a chore is a family obligation. They report into parents for the task assignment and approval that the work is completed. When a family volunteers together the whole troop reports into a stranger who gives the orders. You and your children are peers, working together for a common cause.
Think about spontaneity. Chores are repetitive, predictable, and never-ending. Kids who volunteer learn new skills, discover new places and people, and find purpose in their contributions. Unloading the dishwasher day after day never feels that way; it never will.
Think about appreciation. Ask your child why they want to volunteer for (name a cause familiar to them). The answers are parenting affirming. I asked my middle son, straight up, what’s in it for him. His reply, “I got the feeling that someone deep down appreciated what I did.” Gulp! When was the last time I showed my son a “deep appreciation” for taking out the trash? Yes, I’ll thank my kids for finishing their chores, but there’s an understanding that we expect them to contribute.
Think about social opportunities – especially for youth-related causes. My oldest son joined Best Buddies. He discovered the organization when a friend asked him to help decorate for the Best Buddies prom. He hung streamers, danced the night away and, by his account he, “fell in love” with the organization. What made it special? He described Best Buddies as a cool atmosphere where talking to everyone was fun and easy. He felt good about himself and enjoyed dropping the typical high school pretense.
Think about family bonding. Yes, elusive family time – no activities, no outside social obligations, no screens. It’s getting harder to pull off, especially keeping each child’s developmental stage in mind. I combine my clan’s affinity for volunteering with our appetite for new experiences. Together, we’ve worked for a variety of charities that help our community -from food pantries to community gardens to rescue shelters. Young children are not only able to participate, but appreciate the organization’s mission.
We do better as a family when we’re doing good together. My children’s altruistic tendencies do not directly translate into a sudden devotion to loading the dishwasher. But I see green shoots of growing compassion and selflessness that cannot be cultivated by cleaning a kitchen. And that’s a powerful force.
Amy von Kaenel is the CEO and founder of VolunteerCrowd and mother of three boys who have collectively volunteered over 1,000 hours. Amy launched VolunteerCrowd to give students of all ages equal access to inspiring service-learning opportunities. Visit VolunteerCrowd or download the app.