Although my daughter Rosie, 7, loves dogs, she felt disappointed after volunteering at the local animal shelter. Because of her age, they didn't let her interact with any pets -- or even people. Instead, she sorted supplies. My lesson: Second- and third-graders can grasp the importance of helping the less fortunate, but it's crucial to pick the right volunteer experiences. "Consider your child's personality -- not just her passions," suggests Myrna Shure, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. Find a match with our guide.
If your child tends to have trouble with new situations, brainstorm about people she already knows who may need help. "When we think about volunteering, we tend to think about the big organizations, but maybe there's an elderly neighbor who would love for you and your child to bring her a meal, take in her garbage can, or walk her dog regularly," suggests Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. She could also write thank-you letters to teachers, coaches, or even local firefighters, police officers, and veterans. Another option: Participate in an organized activity together, such as sorting donations at a food bank. No matter what your child chooses, make sure you prep her in advance about what to expect, including sad situations. You don't have to go into great detail -- just stick with basic facts. For instance, if you're helping out in a nursing home, let her know in advance that some of the residents will be in wheelchairs and hooked up to medical equipment. You might even practice some basic niceties such as smiling and saying "hello." A little can go a long way to brighten someone's day.
The possibilities are practically endless for children who enjoy lots of interaction. For maximum impact, look for opportunities that will give your child a chance to see the smiles on the faces of the people he's helping. Ask if the local senior center will let you come and play games with residents, or if the local Ronald McDonald House will let you lend a hand with family activities or decorating for the holidays. Help serve food at a soup kitchen, read books to children at a homeless shelter, or deliver meals to the homebound together. "Kids get the most out of volunteering through the human bonds they form, especially if they're really social," says Ellen Sabin, author of The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving.
Children who have trouble sitting still may not enjoy volunteering at a library, a hospital, or a homeless shelter, where all the rules may feel suffocating, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "You don't want the experience to seem like torture." Instead, search for outdoor activities like cleaning up litter in a local park, planting flowers and trees, or walking, running, or biking to raise money for health research. Many towns also have sports groups, such as the Miracle League, that pair children with disabilities with a "buddy" who can help them play.
An easy project for a self-starter is to organize a donation drive for a local charity, points out Concetta Bencivenga, executive director of Generation On, a national group in New York City that mobilizes youth to do service. A take-charge child may also enjoy thinking of new ways to raise money for an organization. It may be something as simple as setting up a lemonade-and-cookie stand on your front lawn, or your child may have a bigger vision, the way Will Lourcey, of Fort Worth, did. When Will was 7, he saw a man holding a sign that said 'Need a meal' and asked how he could help, recalls his mom, Julie Lourcey. Will and his friends organized a dodgeball tournament. Participants paid an entry fee, and all the money went to the local food bank.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.