Every few months, Kevin and Lisa Gallatin’s three boys are hard at work in a warehouse disassembling sample packs of diapers, baby wipes, and other infant items that retailers donate by the truckload. Lisa sits on the board of Second Stork, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based nonprofit that hands out gift bags filled with these goods to underprivileged families of newborns before they even leave the hospital. Opening all of the sample packages, sorting their contents, and assembling the gift bags requires a lot of hands — and the Gallatins feel that their 10-, seven-, and three-year-old are the perfect men for the job.
“We think it is great for our boys to have the opportunity to help people who don’t have as much as we do,” Kevin says. “As a family, we are extremely fortunate, and we want them to realize that and see that many families lack the most basic things, including items babies need to start their lives. We want the boys to know they should be giving back.”
No matter who you are, donating your time, skills, and energy to a nonprofit, organization, school, or cause has innumerable benefits — for the recipients of this generosity, of course, but also for you. A big body of research links volunteering to improved physical and mental health, including low rates of mortality and depression. But getting your kids in on the action yields a host of additional benefits that positively impact children, parents, and the family as a whole.
“Volunteering allows families to identify some of their chosen values and put some of those values into direct observable action,” Fred Peipman, Ph.D., a family psychologist in San Francisco and author of Parenting Across the Gap: Raising Teens in the 21st Century, told Fatherly. “Spending time together as a family is key, and volunteering is a way to do that while focusing on a specific task. Parents don’t have to feel so much pressure to be teaching kids something.”
By the very nature of the task, kids are learning valuable lessons. “Just doing something nice for others shifts their perspectives and helps them get out of their own heads,” Peipman says. This may be particularly helpful for teens, he adds, whose still-developing brains can make them believe their own problems are the end of the world, when in reality, they are not. Volunteering can also give them a confidence boost and help them feel good about themselves, something teenagers often struggle with.
“It feels great to give without any expectation of getting anything in return,” Peipman adds. “Volunteering also helps send the message that kids’ actual actions are important and have impact, beyond just what their image or online profile shows.”
For these reasons, Peipman strongly suggests families choose volunteer activities, such as helping out at a soup kitchen or sorting clothing for Goodwill, versus just collecting donations. “One of the most valuable things you can give to another human being is your time and your attention,” he says. These opportunities may be especially enriching around the holidays, Peipman adds, because they can counteract the materialism and commercialism that now dominate our culture this time of year.
Parents, too, gain from volunteering alongside their children. “This can be a parallel experience in that you don’t have to be in charge,” Peipman says. “I’ve given homework assignments to families to volunteer together at a place neither has gone before. By going into a new situation together, it creates equality and can really help with connection between parents and kids. It also helps parents see that they don’t need to wring their hands over this younger generation, because they really do care. This can give you optimism about the future.”
Since volunteering gets paid a lot of lip service, the biggest challenge may be actually doing it. To ensure your family takes action, Peipman suggests planning it in advance, getting your kids’ input on when and where to volunteer, and finding opportunities that fit their personalities and abilities. “For example, if your child is not very sociable or outgoing, they may do well helping out at an animal shelter whereas a kid who is talkative may not like that,” he says. “A chatty child may instead prefer volunteering with elderly adults or the Special Olympics.”
If your child is still skeptical, Peipman recommends telling them that if the experience goes well, you’ll go out to dinner or do something fun together afterward, or they can watch an extra hour of TV that night. And for older kids, “remind them that volunteering is a great thing to put on applications for college and jobs,” he adds.