Teens need service—not bribery—to get into the best colleges

As a mother of four, there are so many things I believe I probably don’t get right in the parenting department on a daily basis. My first instinct is to beat myself up over all the things I am probably doing “wrong,“ rather than focus on the things I may be getting right. But that’s human nature—I think most of us can relate.

I often jokingly say that raising my children to be kind and empathetic adults is the one piece I feel like I may be getting more right than wrong. But I even second guess that!

While I’m working on being a bit more self-forgiving, I’m also working on not standing in judgment of other moms struggling through the same stuff. I couldn’t help, however, but to be struck by the recent Hollywood college admission scandal and all that it said to me about where we are in our parenting journeys.

It is so easy to get caught up in the latest gimmick, fad, perceived advantage-creating scenario, when it comes to our children and their future success. I’ve been a witness to the helicopter parent era and now the “snowplow parent” generation. And again, as a mom of four, I totally get it.

But I’m not naive. The nonprofit I founded—Project Giving Kids—works in LA, where the college admissions scandal is centered. I have heard plenty of stories from friends and colleagues there about people taking advantage of others for the sake of preserving or advancing their own agendas.

It sometimes takes a good story for us to step back and analyze where we are and where we want to be. I am excited to see universities have now begun to say they want students of character who have engaged meaningfully in community service—not the kind that just looks good on a resume, but the kind that changes people from the inside out—and have found ways to incorporate that desire into their admission processes.

In fact, a recent survey of college admissions officers suggests that more than half consider volunteer service to be the tie breaker between equally qualified candidates. And another recent study found that over 70% of them valued four years of service to a cherished cause—which is just one reason we not only have short and simple volunteer opportunities for all ages, but are also committed to providing a variety of more in-depth, potentially long-term volunteer opportunities for teens, such as with the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, Ethos in Boston, or The Gentle Barn in the Los Angeles area, to name just a few.

The vast majority of admissions officers also said they were confident they could tell whether a student was really committed to volunteering for a particular cause, or only doing it to look good for admissions.

I believe that if we start those lessons of service early enough, we naturally build children of character who have a positive and meaningful view of their role in the world. They naturally become the kind of people colleges want because they are the kind of people we all want to be around, who really believe in something, and genuinely care about others.

So I will take my shock and horror over the recent scandal and put those feelings in a useful place. While I may not agree with their choices, I will not condemn the parents who made them, for we all want what is best for our kids.

Instead, I will reaffirm my commitment to raising a generation of children who know their worth not by the test scores they may or may not have rightfully earned, but by their empathy, the actions they undertake, and the positive ways in which they affect the world and those around them.

I do not believe that life is a zero-sum game.  I believe we all can win when winning is defined by the metrics that matter, most especially a life well lived—a life of honesty, integrity, meaning, and service.

Help Your Kid Build Emotional Intelligence in 3 Simple Ways

We all want our kids to succeed, and we want to give them the skills they need to do it. But are you putting volunteer service on your child’s list of crucial extra-curriculars?

If you aren’t, here’s why you should.

Did you know that emotional intelligence is a bigger predictor of long term success than good grades?
Source: GIPHY

The biggest thing that is going to help your kid through their life and future career isn’t IQ, test scores, or academic skill – it’s emotional intelligence. Decades of research shows that kids who develop skills like empathy, resilience, and how to differentiate and name emotions are much more successful as adults, and much less likely to self-harm and engage in risky behavior as teens.

Volunteer service helps prepare teens for college, not just by looking good on college applications or qualifying them for service-oriented scholarships, but by strengthening their character.

It’s been proven that volunteer service is strongly associated with more positive outcomes such as higher grades, better mental health, and better follow-through with commitments.

Learning emotional intelligence through service to others is important at every age.
Source: GIPHY

Volunteer service helps kids seek out and listen to what others need, connect with them, and create meaningful emotional connections. We can help them name all those feelings and get comfortable talking about them, help them better understand how their actions impact others, and help them process how service affects their own lives.

Teens lose half their brains in puberty, and what they do in their teen years matters.
Source: Reaction GIFs

With teens, it’s especially important to reinforce lessons of empathy and giving. The pre-teen and teenage brain goes through several (literally!) mind-blowing biological transformations, and things like regular volunteer service can help teens establish and feed life-long habits rooted in personal responsibility, empathy, and compassion.

Showing kids and teens in real, concrete terms how their actions affect others can be challenging, but it’s also vital. Service helps make those lessons easy and positive.

We’ve created a simple challenge for kids and teens of all ages to help you get started.
Source: Gifer

A Little #GivingChallenge is designed to help young people of all ages reflect on these things simply and easily, so the lessons stick, reinforcing pathways in the brain that support empathy and kindness.

With A Little #GivingChallenge, we’ve taken out all the guesswork to help you get started. Three days for kids and teens to give back in three different ways, with three concrete actions.


A Little #GivingChallenge

  • Day 1: Help your family
  • Day 2: Do something kind for a teacher, friend, or neighbor
  • Day 3: Give back to your community


With our downloadable quick guide, you’ll get ideas for each day of the challenge and a place where kids can reflect on why they chose a particular activity. This moment of reflection is super important, as it’s what builds those pathways in the brain that help kids process and retain these lessons of empathy, service, and kindness.

Download the PDF here!


Why Volunteering Really Matters

This guest post is by Wendy Thurmond, PGK Board Member and mom of three.

The days of making sure they are asleep on their backs, cutting their food into tiny pieces and snapping their onesies are sadly over. Little kids, little problems. One of my biggest worries now, is making sure my kids have a conscience. On a recent trip to Miami, I was in awe of how many young girls spent a considerable amount of time on the beach taking so called selfies.  As opposed to being in the moment, they seemed more concerned with how they would look on social media. I immediately thought, how do I make sure that’s not my kids in 6 years?

For much of my life I have volunteered, to help others and to also take the focus off of me. Giving back wasn’t as easy when my kids were really little.  Once they hit elementary school I felt they were ready to give back, the problem was finding places that allowed them to volunteer at a young age. A friend mentioned Project Giving Kids, an interactive way to connect kids to causes. I fell in love with the concept, not only for its convenience, but for its commitment to helping raise kids to be better humans. Studies show kids who volunteer are more likely to feel connected with their communities, and less likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drug use. The non-profit Child Trends found kids who volunteer are much more likely to graduate from college than their peers. The evidence on the benefits of volunteering at a young age is abundant.

I sing the praises of Project Giving Kids to friends, colleagues and even strangers, any chance I get. The cause seems to resonate with everyone.   Those people have in turn gone to the site, registered and gotten their children involved. Old fashioned interaction has allowed me to hear from kids first hand about how, where and when they want to volunteer. Kids talk to other kids about what they have done, and they too want to be a part of the action. In this world of constant stimulation, staying relevant isn’t easy. As long as we at PGK continue to spread our wings and bring more phenomenal non-profits onboard, I believe the kids will come, but we depend on parents to be the facilitators.

Ego is the latin word for self. I always tell my kids too much ego is never a good thing. Volunteering will never go out of style, but I hope selfies will. To react to the outside world, you have to pay attention to it. When you are always pointing the camera at yourself, it’s hard to see what’s going on around you.  PGK has allowed my kids to see a small sliver of the real world; some parents spend weeks in hotels while their child undergoes cancer treatment, some kids can’t afford soccer cleats, and some elderly people never get a birthday card. PGK has helped take the focus off of us, and put it on those in need. A priceless education. Sure, I take plenty of cell phone shots of my kids volunteering, but the focus is on what they are doing, not what they look like.

PGK and Political Participation: Why Raising Civically-Minded Kids is Important

According to recent studies, “Young people who grow up in a household where someone volunteers are twice as likely to volunteer regularly, to be an active member of a group, and are more likely to follow politics and vote.”

From the onset, encouraging all citizens, young and old, to give back to their communities seems like easy insurance for civic engagement. Especially with the 2016 election season looming, figuring out ways to cultivate strong civic values in our kids is important for not only this election, but for all elections to come.

Project Giving Kids focuses on finding causes that kids really care about; being interested in a particular cause or organization, paired with the experience of making a difference in their community exposes them to their civic duty in an effective way. While the connection between making Joke Books for Hospitality Homes or hosting a Crayon Collection crayon drive and voting in a future election might not be apparent, utilizing any and all methods for promoting civic engagement in youth is a smart choice.

Reflecting back on service experiences is also important for solidifying the impact giving back to the community has on your kids. “Young people who discuss a volunteer experience are twice as likely as others to volunteer regularly. And, they are also 16 percentage points more likely to try to influence someone’s vote.” (Source: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)

PGK’s registration feature facilitates the essential reflection every time a child indicates that he or she “completed” an activity, helping parents to maximize the influence each and every civic experience has on their kids. While the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election is not at all clear, one thing we can be certain of is the importance of raising civically-minded kids that care not only about giving back to their communities, but also about electing those who will lead them.