Teaching Kids to Care

We all want our kids to be altruistic. It starts with us.

During her four years as a student at McLean High School, Rosey Iames volunteered with her school’s Safe Community Coalition. Her job: to ease younger students’ anxieties as they made the transition from Longfellow and Cooper middle schools into McLean High. In this role, Iames fielded their questions on how to handle everything from class schedules and friendship dynamics to pressures related to grades, sports, sex and drugs. The idea behind the program is that students are often more comfortable confiding in older peers, as opposed to adult authority figures.

The younger students weren’t the only ones who benefited. “I’ve used the listening skills with my friends,” says Iames, now 20 and attending Army Reserve boot camp, with plans to begin classes at George Mason University this spring. “I’m more confident, too. I’ve gotten more open-minded.”

According to an oft-cited 10-year-old report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering fosters greater self-esteem while providing a social outlet, a sense of purpose and a boost in happiness—effects that apparently compound with age.

“Volunteering is good for your mental health,” Time magazine concluded in an article last year.

Studies suggest there are physical paybacks too—including lower blood pressure, reduced stress and a longer life span—though there is some debate as to whether altruism makes people healthier, or healthy people are more able and willing to be altruistic.

Either way, “You’re getting back so much more than you’re giving,” Cindy Walls, a therapist with Sunstone Counseling in Falls Church, often tells teens.

A longtime track coach at Bishop O’Connell High School, Walls is a big advocate of volunteering. “In this area, most kids have the academic thing down,” she says, “but volunteering is a chance to develop some other skills, like organization, time management, accountability.”

Plus, it builds the human connections that have become more elusive in an age of social media, Walls says. Volunteering helps kids develop a greater sense of compassion and gratitude, whereas “on the flip side, if children lack empathy, that leads to antisocial behavior like bullying and disrespect.”

Categories: Parents & Kids