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Finding Family Volunteer Opportunities

We all want to raise kids who give back, but how to do start? Natalie Silverstein shares tips on creating family volunteer opportunities and getting kids interested in serving and giving back. Raising kids who give back is another resource on this topic on this blog.

We all want to raise kids who give back, but how to do start? Natalie Silverstein shares tips on creating family volunteer opportunities. #parenting #parentingtips #community #givingback #socialgood

Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back

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As a parent trying to raise kind children, giving back is always on my mind. This month I enjoyed reading a preview copy of Natalie Silverstein’s upcoming book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back.

Silverstein serves as the volunteer coordinator of Doing Good Together TM in New York City. A
frequent consultant and presenter to parents, faculty, students, and community groups on the topic of family service, she and her family regularly make time to volunteer in their community.

Simple Acts of Service for Busy Families

Silverstein’s book is full of wonderful ideas of ways parents and children can serve together and give back to the community. Besides creating a family mission statement to work around, Silverstein ties family service opportunities to play dates, birthdays and other milestones, seasons, and travel.

The book features an extensive resource to help parents find ways they can volunteer with their kids. Here are some simple ideas from Silverstein to get you started.

Easy Family Volunteer Opportunities

  • Create a cloth “giving bag” to take to the grocery store. While grocery shopping, have your child pick out non-perishable food items and donate them to the local food pantry on the way home
  • Plant a tree or flowers in your backyard or sign up for a local park clean-up to encourage  environmentalism and community beautification
  • Leave a stack of colored paper and markers at the dinner table for kids to create cards for active duty military, isolated seniors, or hospitalized children
  • Use recyclable plastic bottles and scraps of fleece to make dog toys and bring them to a local animal shelter to donate or play with
  • Project Backpack: While shopping for back-to-school supplies, encourage kids to pick out a few extra items to donate to children who don’t have the resources for the learning tools they need

Helpful Tips for Parents Who Want to Volunteer With Kids

I was lucky enough to interview Silverstein for this post. I’d already read the book when we spoke, so these are bonus tips from the author!

Question: Do you have any particular recommendations for parents who are just starting to get involved with service when their kids are older, maybe late elementary through middle and high school? I would especially love tips for kids who are dragging their heels about service.

There’s never a bad time to start. It’s never too early, and it’s never too late.

When children are very young it’s very difficult to find the time; it’s hard enough just to keep your head above water. And it sounds like a wonderful idea, to try and do hands-on service with  young children, but time is precious and there are a lot of other competing priorities.

It’s never too late to start serving.

I think that, no matter when a family wants to start doing this, it’s a great time.

One of the most important points I try to get across is that if you can get your kids to use their own curiosity, issues that interest and concern them, they’re going to buy in a lot more quickly.

Tie service opportunities to your children’s interests and family values

As older children go to school, as they start reading, listening to the news, paying attention to what’s going on and having their own experiences, things will start to peak their interests. Start conversations around those things. Really have family discussions, around family values and priorities. What do you care about as a family? Animals? Homelessness? The environment? Hunger? Food and security?

Running a food drive is an excellent family volunteer opportunity

Hopefully children have enough food in their own homes, and it’s hard for them to grasp that some of their friends at school come to school hungry. But food and security is an important thing to talk about. Even though a family seems like they are like your own and seems like they may have enough food at home, they may not.

Broaden service circles as children grow older.

As kids get much older, as you have teenagers, they start to really pay attention to what’s happening in politics, what’s happening for women’s rights, for immigration. I think that you pick up on things that your children are talking about and caring about. It’s really just about keeping an open heart and an open mind, and really paying attention to what’s going on around you in your own community and what resonates with your children. And then taking the time to do a little research to find something that you can all do together.

Prioritize service.

I appreciate that this is going to take some effort. It may mean not doing something on a Saturday that you would normally do. It means saying no to something else to say yes to finding the time to make a difference. To go out and do something hand-on your family.

It’s absolutely worthwhile. You’ll never regret the time spent.

And it is just as worthy a priority, if not more worthy than many of the other things that families prioritize. It’s really about living your values.

It’s about finding the time on a Sunday afternoon instead of going to another soccer game. Finding the time to say, “We’re gonna go as a family now. We’re going to do this service project together.

Debrief as a Family

Talk about it together afterwards, and figure out your family mission statement together.

What are you going to focus on as you try to make a difference in the world, and how can you continue it forward, so it’s not just a one time thing.

Tie service to things that are already happening.

I hope the book helps parents see that there are already lots of things you do as a family where you can incorporate service. Birthday parties, play dates, other outings.

Just be mindful as opportunities present themselves. When kids are bored, find some small act of kindness where you can pay it forward.

It’s about keeping an open heart, open mind, and open eyes for those moments where you can do something to help in the world around you.

Question: I really appreciate in the book how you talk about all the time and resources we invest in helping our children develop talents. Can you speak a little on why we need to see that serving is a talent we should be investing time and resources in as well?

Family service means taking one day a month, one afternoon a month. How many soccer games, how many lessons do we make time for? We live in a hectic, over scheduled world. We want to make sure our kid doesn’t fall behind.

Service teaches valuable life skills.

I would argue that prioritizing compassion and empathy and gratitude as you go about your day to day life is a piece of raising good kids who grow up to do good things as adults. I love enriching children’s lives and helping them develop and get into college. But we should care about this just as much.

Question: I find that, with my kids, we go through phases where they are really excited about a service project and then they are really reluctant. Do you have recommendations on how to deal with this? How do you work through those feet dragging moments?

It’s really about keeping it fresh and keeping it different. I talk a lot about family traditions, and in my research for the book I looked at the science for why family service is important and impactful.

Studies show that if children do service when they are little, they will do it as adults. If they do it with their families when they are little, they are even more likely to do it as adults.

Similarly with family traditions, the things you do consistently with your kids, whatever they are, those are the things they will remember in adulthood. They don’t remember the one-off fantastic trip.

Make serving together a part of family traditions

I believe that incorporating service into traditions makes it fun and memorable. We have traditions around Hanukkah and Back to School and Halloween.

Fill backpacks as a service project when you’re doing your own back to school shopping. And have a conversation about the difference this makes for the kids you are serving.

Pairing service with traditions keeps it fresh since you do different things at different times of year.

Just keep trying to serve together.

Persistence is important, and it doesn’t always work out. I have three very different kids and they are three different ages. Sometimes somebody’s bored, sometimes somebody’s not having a good time, and sometimes somebody just doesn’t want to do it.

You can create a habit of doing good.

I find though, that since it’s part of our values as a family and we make time for this, they kind of start to just go along with it. And they start to find joy in it. They start to anticipate the ones that they really enjoy, and the ones that they don’t enjoy doing as much they still understand the value of that time spent. And I think that that’s the most important thing; it’s sort of like eating your vegetables.

Certainly keeping it fresh, keeping it interesting, coming up with new ideas, letting your kids decide. These all help. Ask the kids, “What’s something you might want to do? What’s the next thing you might want to do? It’s spring time; we want to start a new service tradition in our family. Do you want to do something in the local parks, or the local national forest? What can we do?” And let them drive that.

I also talk about that in the travel section. If you’re going somewhere on vacation, let them see what the opportunities might be on that trip. Is there something that really resonates with them, that they would like to explore and learn more about? I think that’s how you get kids to engage and stay involved.

Service opportunities don’t always work out the way we envisioned. Talk it through, and find another chance to serve.

And listen: sometimes it’s just a monumental failure. Just like everything else in parenting. You pick up the pieces, you learn from that, you talk about it with your kids.

I’m a big fan of not over talking, but being open to conversation. Allow younger children to ask questions about things that you’ve done. What made them comfortable? When and why were they uncomfortable? What can we do differently? What are other ways that we might be able to help those people or that organization?

You learn as you go along and try to make it better the next time.

Question: How do you balance service in our homes and local communities with broader service? My kids are most comfortable at home and I’m always pushing them outside. How do you balance when to push and when not to?

With younger children I think it’s much easier to do things at home. You can have conversations, read books, watch videos, and it is also difficult to find hands-on opportunities in the community that might welcome children. Which is why I started working with Doing Good Together in the first place. Because that’s our whole mission, to try to identify and curate opportunities for people to actually go out into the community and serve with their kids.

I think going out and interacting with and seeing the people that you are serving is the most impactful thing. But in the absence of that, start small at home with what you know. As kids get older their worldview starts to expand. And you can start to let them venture into the broader community and world.

International tragedies, immigration issues, issues around refugees, when a tsunami happens communities tend to respond. I think it’s important for kids to see that people are hurting very far away, people that they will never see and never interact with. But there are things they can do in their own community to help those people.

Serve however and wherever you and your children are ready to serve.

Pick your cues from your kids, from their ages, from their maturity levels, their interests. When things come up that can expand their worldview, I think there’s real value in that so long as kids can handle it.

Question: Do you have any particular recommendations for helping shy or introverted kids?

Yes. We do a lot of volunteering with seniors. I think inter-generation interaction is very important. But you can take young kids to a nursing home to spread joy and love but the seniors aren’t very receptive, or sometimes they aren’t. That’s very hard to navigate.

Clearly if a child is very shy and doesn’t want to participate, you should never force them to participate.

Volunteer as a family by visiting the elderly.

Model simple acts of service all day long.

I think you can do a lot with modeling. I didn’t start out feeling super comfortable in those situations, but I think as you get over your own fears interacting with people, learn to smile and be open, kids watch and learn. Start with small things in your day to day life. Open the door for the next person in line. Thank the person in a store who helps you by name.

I’m trying to show my children through my own interactions with people that you can trust people, and it’s okay. Smiling and making eye contact is the most important. You don’t have to go beyond that. Make people feel seen.

Be Brave.

Doing hands-on service is really kind of sticking your neck out. Helping people who are having a hard time is really hard. The ability to just sit, listen, and be with someone, to be a kind presence makes a big difference. Sometimes you don’t have to do a whole lot to serve. Model that for kids, smile, stay open to the possibilities, make it fun. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Acknowledge that and find something else, but stick with service.

Question: How can we teach kids to be there for people in our community who are dealing with grief or illness or other hardship? How can we find family service opportunities in situations where service is needed but there isn’t a lot of structure around how to help?

Empathy is really a muscle, a skill that you have to learn and practice just like playing the piano. Teach and model active listening and being present with others, putting yourself in their shoes.

It’s all too easy to stay far away or help too much, but I feel like we’re starting to learn a nice balance of knowing where and how to show service.

Simple obvious things make a big difference. Bake cookies on a snow day and deliver them to an elderly neighbor who’s isolated. Make cards and deliver them to a nursing home.

You never know what ripple effect a small act of kindness might have on the life on someone.

Model simple ways to help so kids see that it doesn’t have to be something big. Give kids the opportunity to come up with ideas. Maybe offer to help take out the trash, or walk the dog.

Offer specific acts of service to help those who are struggling.

Don’t place the burden on the person having a hard time to tell you how to help. Make an offer of two or three specific things your can do, and offer. They may not need the help you can offer, but making the offer is a small kindness that builds compassion and empathy and learning how to be a good friend.

Give others the benefit of doubt.

Give people a break. When someone snaps or is unkind, start a discussion with your kids as to why the person might be having a day where they are behaving this way. This helps children stay open and loving as they learn to assume the best in others.

Read the book for more tips!

Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back is a fantastic service resource for families who want to volunteer together. It’s a wonderful place to start if you’re parents looking for ways to give back to the community.

Have you found family volunteer opportunities that you love? How do you teach your children empathy and compassion in day to day life?

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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

7 thoughts on “Finding Family Volunteer Opportunities”

  1. It can also be hard to find places that allow young kids to volunteer. Wendy has been eagerly looking forward to the time when she’s old enough to volunteer at the animal shelter.

  2. natalie planetsmartypants

    So many great ideas here. I am giving this matter some thought lately – looking for ways to contribute meaningfully to our community.

    1. It’s so important, but it also can take a lot of planning and preparation to do successfully. I really appreciated the pointers in the book as well as in this interview.

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