Three critical life skills children can gain through family volunteering experiences

Parents can help children develop critical life skills by planning and conducting family based community volunteering.

For many people, the end of year is a time to celebrate with family and friends and to give back to their community through service, charity and volunteerism. Why not make a resolution to make 2014 a year for your family to spend some quality time together while making a positive difference in your community?  With some planning and forethought, parents can provide an opportunity for their family to do both of these things while helping their children develop some valuable life skills.  Here are three skills that children can develop through involvement in a well planned family volunteer experience:

  • Decision making skills
    According to Michigan State University Extension, planning a family volunteering experience presents an opportunity for children to develop decision making skills as families decide what type of volunteer experience they want to complete together.  A decision making process might start with talking about goals each family member has for volunteering and any constraints that would limit their volunteering.  The next step would be to generate a list of volunteer activities which meet the family’s goals and restrictions.  This could be done by brainstorming known volunteer opportunities or taking time to research volunteer opportunities or nonprofit organizations located in the community.  After a list of possibilities has been generated, the family members can review the list and discuss the reasons for, or against, choosing each option.  Using this process will help to decide on a volunteer activity that is meaningful for the whole family.        
  • Social skills
    Many volunteer experiences provide an opportunity to meet and interact with people from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences that may be different from one’s own family. Volunteering as a family presents a time for parents to model positive social skills, and for children and youth to develop and practice using these skills.  Parents can model how they introduce themselves and engage in conversation with new people. Other social skills that parents can model during the volunteer experience might include how to follow directions, how to ask questions in appropriate ways, how to express feelings appropriately, and how to show respect and sensitivity to others. 
  • Empathy skills
    Empathy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else's feelings.”  Family based volunteer experiences present many opportunities to develop one’s sense of empathy.  Many volunteer experiences offer youth with the opportunity to see life through a different person’s perspective.  For instance, volunteering to help in the distribution of food at a food pantry or food bank can be an experience which helps youth to think about how access to food affects members of their community.  Parents and other adults can also help youth develop empathy by providing time to reflect on and share the feelings that they had before, during and after the volunteer experience.  If all the members of the family engage in shared reflection together following the volunteer experience, youth benefit from understanding other family members experiences.

The Michigan 4-H Youth Development program offers many opportunities for youth and families to engage in community service and volunteering.  More information can be obtained by visiting Michigan 4-H or by contacting your local MSU Extension office.

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