The Benefits of Volunteering
There's a big bonus to helping others: While it's clearly good for the person being helped, it's also beneficial to the helper. Kids who volunteer do better in school and are less likely to try drugs, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that promotes acts of citizenship and responsibility. The same organization found that people who regularly lend a hand tend to be healthier and that these wellness benefits increase if they start charitable work earlier in their life. Research also demonstrates that doing volunteer work that involves personal contact makes people feel better: There's a literal endorphin rush for the giver, the give, and anyone watching. Plus, it builds confidence and self-worth in the right way, by showing kids that their actions matter.
Even if your motives for getting your kids involved are, well, selfish, it's all good. "They still get the experience of helping other human beings," says Allan Luks, author of The Healing Power of Doing Good. Besides, not all children are good at the other things that can build self-esteem, like getting good grades or being a gifted athlete. But everyone can volunteer.
The "everyone" part is key. "Kids will not do it on their own," Luks says. "Parents have to give them a push." The easiest way to do that is to join a cause as a family. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that children with at least one parent who volunteers are almost three times as likely to participate in a do-good activity as those whose families don't get involved.
That doesn't mean you need to schedule weekly visits to a nursing home or take a volunteer service vacation to Ghana (unless you want to, of course). Building a culture of giving is simpler than that -- praising kids when they share nicely with their siblings, encouraging them to make birthday cards for their friends, picking up trash as a family when you're at the park or playground, visiting an animal shelter to give the ownerless cats and dogs some hands-on love. "Just smiling at someone is a charitable act," says Sabin. "If we offer good experiences, if we say to kids, 'How cool is it that you can do this,' it becomes addictive."
She's right. I saw it myself, right there in front of the tree at preschool, after my girls decided -- finally -- to let go of the toy. Drew got down on her knees and pushed the present under the tree, then stood up and turned toward me. There was a huge, beaming smile on her face that reminded me of the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes. "I want to put some more presents under the tree!" she said.
"Yeah, Mommy," her older sister, Blair, piped in. "We need to help other people a lot more." So to answer my own question: Yes, in the end, it really was worth it.