Yesterday my son joined the ranks of other middle school students doing community service for the requisite number of “hours” to meet his school’s requirement. While the lively clamoring of kids poured into the mini-van for this church-sponsored event, I couldn’t help but wonder if they really got the point of it all. Sure, we want to makes sure that the homeless get more coats, but isn’t the point to also cultivate an ethic of service in our kids for the long haul?
You’d think my son’s early experiences living in Nairobi would’ve given him some upfront and personal motivation. Every time our car was stuck in traffic at a major intersection, homeless kids surrounded our car, tapping our window with one hand and holding tight to the glue they’d been sniffing with the other. Homeless children were a regular part of our conversations in Nairobi, as was the stories of the refugees I was there to help. At his international school, service learning was built into the curriculum. But, now three years later, like so many American kids, being with his friends and having fun seemed the overriding reason for going to last night's community service event.
Don’t get me wrong – I know that getting a chance to be with your friends is a good place to start. And, the simple act of DOING SOMETHING out and about, beyond the video games and smart phones, can only be a good thing. Fair enough. But, as a lifetime humanitarian, whose pinnacle career moment was outside a pit latrine in a refugee camp in Rwanda, I hope for more from my kids’ service experience than bad jokes and a mad dash for the candy.
I mean no diss at all to the amazing church that continues to sponsor these incredible events in a way that’s accessible to kids on their terms. Believe me. I hold these events and their sponsors in the highest regard. It just begs the question – how can we make sure community service is meaningful? What are the ingredients that get our kids past the requisite number of hours logged?
Practically speaking, there IS more to community service with a big fat group of friends. Most work in the real world, even service work, gets done in groups of people. For SUSTAINED action, our kids do need to learn how to navigate the personality strains, complexities and challenges of real world environments that can drive even the most idealistic do-gooder crazy. Social skills are the grease that keeps every operation running.
Ok, fair enough. Skills. But, what about a deeper motivation? What about the meaning? What about connecting deeply to the fulfillment of carrying out a noble mission? Of playing a part in effecting change, working for justice, and making the world a better place?
Digging deeper, the research tells us more. First off, young people need to have control over their choice of activities in order to be invested. That’s why in every “Helping the World Project” we do in Princess Warriors, the girls choose the cause. I give them choices, I create the structure and help make it happen, but they always choose the cause. If it means helping animals for the third season in a row, that’s what we’ll do.
Then there’s the empathy part. If you can’t begin to imagine how another person’s feeling, why would you care? Empathy’s got to be one of the motivations for meaningful community service, and it CAN be cultivated. Empathy goes hand in hand with emotional intelligence. From early on, we can give kids the language to describe their emotional world and help them to imagine what others may be feeling. Stories are a great way to make those connections.
Caring about the experience of others is the beginning (empathy), but translating that into action (altruism) is something different. In order to cultivate altruism, children need to see themselves as someone who cares and incorporate caring as a part of their identity. In our programs for girls, the archetype of a “Princess Warrior” is used as a model for girls in their moral identity, and they are frequently reminded of how they themselves are Princess Warriors. Each girl is recognized not just for specific actions, but for her whole identity as a caring, helpful person. All of our children can benefit from this kind of recognition for who they are as caring people that are actually making a difference in the world.
I want more for my kids than hours. I want to raise them to be in it for a lifetime. Service experiences have to occur over a sustained period of time to make a dent. Projects that also promote greater understanding over time give kids the chance to develop a relationship with those they’re helping – at least in an abstract way – and to care more. Relationships are everything with kids. Heck, relationships are everything. Period.
I’m grateful for every attempt to get my kids helping others. I’m grateful for everyone who’s creating a culture that values service. And, I’m grateful for the reminder to do more for my children so that service is meaningful – to help them find the cause they care about and work on it in a sustained way, over time. Maybe it has nothing to do with homeless children who are hungry. Maybe the stories of refugees just don’t resonate. That’s Ok. I’ll do whatever it takes to help my kids experience the fulfillment that comes from living out your own, unique sense of purpose. That’s what I’ll sign up for – whether we get credit hours or not.
 Larson (2000) Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.
 Borba, M. (2016) Unselfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Touchstone, New York, NY.
Hawkins, D. L., Pepler, D.J. & Craig, W. M. (2001) Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying, Social Development 10 (4): 512-27.
 Price-Mitchell, M. (2015) Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. Eagler Harber Publishing, Bainbridge Island, WA.