4 Tips to Inspire Your Teen to Volunteer

If you have ever raised a teenager, or even if you just remember being a teenager, you know all too well that being told to do something (or not to do it) is an instant deterrent to motivation. Nothing will make you go in the other direction more quickly than a suggestion, or a demand – from anyone, but especially from your parents! This applies to many aspects of teenagers’ lives – the most obvious of examples being doing homework, exercising, and eating green vegetables on a regular basis.

In addition, some of the stereotypes of teens spending too much time on their phones or computers are very accurate. When you combine the natural tendency for teenagers to avoid suggested activities with their preference towards spending time on their phones and/or playing video games, you have a tough combination. Therefore, if you’re like most parents, telling your teenager to put away their phone in order to spend a morning or a day volunteering is a very difficult request for a parent to make.

I have been volunteering with my kids since they were two years old. Our volunteering has included a variety of activities, including delivering meals to the homeless, planning parties for the elderly, participating in clean ups on Earth Day, participating in political campaigns, and baking dog biscuits for animals in need. Both of my kids have literally grown up volunteering! However, I found that when they became teenagers, I could no longer just bring them along with me on an activity of my choosing. I have to approach volunteering activities much more carefully, thoughtfully, and cautiously than I used to. When I do this the right way, my teens will easily continue to volunteer quite a bit. Actually, they volunteer today even more than they used to.

And, as I’ve discovered, my kids are not unusual.  They are a lot like other teens. In fact, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 55% of teens volunteer – almost twice the rate of adults who are at 29%. They also volunteer more hours per year than the typical adult, and are defined as more “regular” and dependable volunteers at the same time.

So, as parents, what can we do to inspire our teens to continue to volunteer? Instead of demanding that they do what we want them to do, and then when they don’t agree, declaring them unmotivated and difficult, let’s change our mindset and the approach we take towards our teens volunteering. If we realize that our teens can be an asset to our families, and our society as well, when they help others, we will all benefit. In order to contribute in a positive way, the teens themselves absolutely need to be a part of choosing the volunteer event. They will naturally choose the activities that align with their interests, talents, and passions.

Here are four tips to get them there:

1. View them as independent people

Studies find that if you place trust in someone else, he/she is more likely to behave the way you want them to.  This rule applies to teens and volunteering as well.

Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, was one of the first community leaders who had such a mindset shift. He didn’t set out to “use” young people around him. He set out to give youth the tools to be “change-makers” – trusting that they will be motivated enough to take him up on the offer. It works.

2. Align efforts with a team, an interest, or a community group 

If your teen is into sports, there are many opportunities for involvement. Teens could participate in fund-raising activities, coaching or offer to assist on the day of school sports events, especially if they are participating with teammates or a coach they like. For example, my daughter, who plays a lot of soccer, has become the leader of a local group that helps disabled kids learn to play the game. This has become one of her favorite things to do.

For teens interested in healthcare and serving the sick, there are sometimes opportunities to volunteer in local hospitals after some initial medical screening and training. Going with a friend helps a teen in this case quite a bit. Especially if something they could see might be disturbing.

Some teens love animals and have been raised with them in their homes. Granting them autonomy in order to go to a local shelter for homeless animals where you could help with activities such as walking the dogs, cleaning, or feeding the animals is a great activity for teens. They meet new friends, help animals in need, and learn responsibility and independence.

Some teens will want to help the homeless, especially if they feel like they are privileged. My son still finds that this is the volunteer activity of his choosing. He likes talking about how much more efficient and effective helping a group is than giving money or help to one individual on the street.

3. Recognize and value what they’re doing

It’s crucial to communicate to young people that their work is making a difference.

What most leaders do wrong is to do this to a group instead of to an individual. There’s a difference in impact when you tell a group of 100 how well they did vs. when you tell one person directly.

Make sure that you spend time one-on-one with your teenager in order to tell them that you’re proud of them for their efforts and are so happy that they made the time for others.

4. Continue to be a good example

Teens from a family who volunteers is more than twice as likely to volunteer. That means that adults should continue to volunteer on your own. Your kids will notice. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll even suggest that they come with you one day! For example, your interest in local politics and your volunteer activities might lead to your child learning to talk about local and/or national issues that interest them and even offer to participate along with you.

With the right inspiration, teens won’t hesitate to continue to be volunteers. And, in the process, they will become more independent, empathetic, and productive family members and citizens – both now and in the future.