Adolescents need to know that they matter.
It is every generation’s purpose to repair the world. This makes it an imperative that each young person learns that he or she can make a significant contribution whether to a single other person or to the planet.
Young people who understand the importance of service gain a sense of purpose that can build their own resilience and further their own success.
Real service opportunities exist everywhere. Your child does not need to build a water purification system in a far away land to garner the benefits that contribution offers. There are needy among us. Some may reside in shelters, visit food kitchens, or be recuperating in hospitals. Others may be our neighbors, whether a lonely elderly woman who needs help shoveling the snow, or a sixth grader who needs just a little more confidence in math and could use help with his homework.
Here are a few reasons why Contribution is one of the vital C’s of Resilience:
• Kids who make contributions to others learn to see beyond themselves. Young people who give rather than just receive will learn that the universe doesn’t revolve around them or owe them everything they desire. They begin to see beyond their isolated, self-oriented circles. They recognize themselves as part of larger communities.
• When young people serve others they receive positive feedback that protects them from some of the negative, destructive messages about youth. They hear from numerous people besides their parents, “I think you matter,” and absorb the important belief, “I have high expectations for you.” They are surrounded by thank-yous rather than condemnation. Because kids live up or down to expectations set for them, these thank-yous can be highly protective.
• Those who received service give back through the gratitude they offer. When they are adults they offer an extra sets of eyes noticing and monitoring the teen, eyes that both protect because they expect the best. When they are children they seek role models, and nothing protects teens like knowing they are role models to others.
• Contribution helps young people forge connections with their neighborhoods, schools, and world. They see beyond themselves and recognize their place in the human family and on our common planet. The more strongly they feel connected, the more resilient they become. They come to appreciate their blessings and with gratitude, learn to give something back. They will also learn that giving and receiving, sharing during times of plenty, and asking for help during difficult times are normal, healthy things for humans to do. We want our kids to know that just as they give, they can receive.
• Adolescents who volunteer and contribute to worthy causes not only gain confidence, but also avoid problems. The Minneapolis based Search Institute, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to promote healthy children, youth, and communities, has reported that children and teens who volunteer just 1 hour a week are 50% less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in harmful behaviors.
• When adolescents become involved in volunteer activities, they may work with adults who are good role models. As they work alongside adults who contribute to worthwhile causes, they not only learn specific skills, but also connect with adults who are working to make a difference, and that will have a lasting influence on them.
• Contribution isn’t only about good deeds and noble actions. Kids need to know that they can contribute ideas that will be taken seriously and respected. When adults invite their suggestions and opinions, especially about matters that concern them, we increase their sense of control, which in turn enhances their resilience.
• The ultimate act of resilience is to turn to another human being in times of extreme need and say, “Brother or sister, I need a hand.” This is never easy, but may be necessary. We want young people to become adults who can seek help without shame or stigma. If they have the experience of service, they will have learned a vital life lesson: It feels good to give. People who contribute to others’ well-being don’t feel burdened or put upon, they feel honored, even blessed, to have been in the right place at the right time, perhaps with the right training. They often get more than they give. People with this experience can turn to others more freely later because they’re equipped with the understanding that the person guiding them through troubled times is there because he or she wants to be there – not out of pity. Young people deserve to learn this lesson through the opportunity of making a genuine contribution to another person’s life. They will learn there is no shame in reaching out, only a moment of authentic humanity.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings” as well as “Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century” which he coauthored with Susan FitzGerald.