If you give of your time willingly "for the common good and without financial gain", then according to Volunteering Australia, you are one of the 5.8 million Australians or 31 per cent of the population engaged in volunteer work. We know that volunteering can have benefits for the economy and society as a whole, but what benefit can it have for children?
There are many groups in the community that would welcome volunteers. These include animal shelters, church choirs, homes for the elderly and food services for the homeless. Volunteering doesn't need to be on a regular basis but it can have positive, long term benefits for children of all ages.
First and foremost, volunteering has the result of making a difference to the lives of people in the community. This in turn can make children feel great about themselves. Whether it is spending time with an elderly person or helping to take care of an injured animal, a child can be made aware that their time and efforts are making a difference to others. This has the benefit of increasing a child's confidence and helping them become a valued member of the community.
Connection with people
Through volunteering, children are able to meet people from a variety of backgrounds. They are able to connect with others, learn about different cultures and even different socio-economic groups, particularly if volunteering to help those less fortunate than themselves.
For younger children who may simply be helping an adult family member make something for donation to a charity, there is the opportunity for stronger family connections to be developed as they work together for a common good.
Having children understand that not everyone has the opportunities and basic requirements like food and clothing that they do, helps them develop empathy. Being able to reflect on life and think of a situation from another person's viewpoint is such a great attribute and one that we should all be trying to develop in our children.
This is one of the reasons I got my own boys involved in making food for the homeless. Whilst they don't go out and participate in the actual food service, they know they are contributing towards a meal for people who aren't as fortunate as we are. It also gives rise to conversations about why people may find themselves in this situation – some through poor choices but others through circumstances out of their control, and all deserving of a basic human need.
Exploring skills and talents
Volunteering also allows children to explore interests that they may have and develop skills long before they are old enough to formally join the workforce. An aspiring singer may hone their skills in a church choir or a budding landscaper may learn about different plants by volunteering at a nursery.
The possibilities are really endless, but your child's interests could be a great starting point in finding an avenue for volunteering. Does your child love a particular sport? Perhaps they could volunteer as a junior coach or referee.
Furthermore, when they are ready to join the workforce, whether they pursue the same interest or not, having volunteer work on their curriculum vitae will look great to a prospective employer.
Avoidance of risky behaviour
We all want our children to grow up to be responsible members of society, and it seems volunteering is another safeguard against children engaging in risky behaviours that could be detrimental to their well being.
The 2016 United Nations World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement reiterated that "youth who volunteer are less likely to engage in risky behaviour, are more likely to feel connected to their communities, and tend to do better in school." This makes sense when we consider the connections that children make through volunteer work, the role models that they have and their sense of self esteem which develops from making a difference to the community.
Better mental health
Tied to all of the above, volunteering is extremely satisfying. When helping to promote National Volunteer Week last year, Dr Michael Bowen, an expert on the effects of brain chemicals, explained that "helping others triggers the reward pathway in the brain" and that this buzz is sometimes known as "the helper's high". Therefore, volunteering and making a difference to others, leads to healthier and happier individuals.
Of course, to achieve all of the above benefits, psychologist Jocelyn Brewer points out that the experiences have to be "meaningfully applied, not forced upon kids". If approached correctly, volunteering "can play a powerful role in developing a child's sense of self, purpose and contribution to bigger issues."