My teenage daughter is in the tenth grade. She is doing well in school, but as the time approaches to look at colleges, I feel she needs to improve her extra curricular activities with some volunteer work. She has always had everything she has ever needed, except understanding of how much she really has. I am afraid that she is a bit selfish, but does not realize that she is. This year and next summer, I want her to volunteer at a nonprofit organization so that she can learn to help others less fortunate. Do you have any suggestions?
Your letter opens many different issues - the apparent ungratefulness of many affluent teens, a parent's desire to teach appreciation through volunteer efforts, and the judgment that we should "help others less fortunate."
Let's look at these three issues individually as we build a definition that goes beyond simple "volunteering"
First, a bit of reassurance:
Second, as much as we want our teenagers to become caring, concerned and involved in the lives of others, that is not a quality that can be taught as much as it must be learned - and learning life's lessons doesn't always happen within a specific time frame. In his book The Te of Piglet, Benjamin Hoff makes the observation that “you can’t beat sensitivity into someone, but you can beat it out of them.” Just because you want your child to volunteer this summer does not mean that she is emotionally prepared for it.
Third, the very idea that volunteering is a way to "help others less fortunate" is both judgmental and condescending. No one deserves to be approached with a spirit of "being helped."
This is why I believe we should embrace the concept of community service. Service is a union of strengths, with everyone on equal footing. Service requires compassion, but is not judgmental. Service is based on a willingness to learn, and the knowledge that giving also means receiving.
Compassion is, at the core, the turning outward of what was formerly attention that was focused only on the self and one’s own needs. This requires a certain selflessness, or at the very least the awareness that compassion and caring given to others will aid in one’s own growth and actualization. However, this is merely a byproduct, and should not be the main goal. If one enters into a relationship of any kind with the intention of achieving some personal gain, then it is not really an act of caring.
This awareness is not new. Many religions in the world also deal with this idea of compassion as being a mark of the development of spiritual (wo)man. Christianity teaches us to reach out to those in need. Buddhism places a great emphasis on the development of compassion as a byproduct of the practice. Hinduism holds that compassion is located at the level of the heart, and marks the birth of spiritual man from animal man. In short, there is a universal cross cultural affinity for compassion, and it is a worthy attitude to develop.
WHAT TO DO
You can help your child become psychologically prepared for community service and broaden her scope of what is relevant to her life. Here are a few questions:
• Why get involved in a community service project? Go back and review what service requires - willingness, compassion, giving and receiving. Your daughter should understand the importance of community service, both for her life and for others. If she just sees this as something she has to do or an activity to fill in time between summer trips or camp, then perhaps she is not yet ready for this opportunity.
• What can I give - and what can I receive? Help your daughter find opportunities that are best suited for her individual strengths. For example, if she is active in outdoor sports, she may want to become a counselor at a camp for handicapped children. This is what she can give to others, but don't stop there. Have her keep a community service diary in which she identifies the strengths - such as compassion, resilience and perseverance - in each person's life that has been brought out by their different circumstances.
• How will this affect me? Help your daughter recognize that whenever she finds a strength in others that she does not recognize in herself, she has the opportunity to find that inner strength and develop it. For example, if a young mother has the courage to go to a literacy program to prepare for a job, without any assurance that she will be employed, then your daughter may develop the courage to overcome her own fear in a specific area of her life. As your daughter grows from her community service experiences, so will both her universe and her self-actualization grow as she determines what is relevant to her life.
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