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Teaching Our Children to Be Grateful Givers

by Tami Silverman, President & CEO of Indiana Youth Institute


It is the time of year when many of us plan big family meals, decorate our homes, and start holiday shopping. At the same time, we have all heard the phrase “it’s better to given than to receive.” Amidst all of the holiday hustle and bustle, how do we teach our children to go beyond consumerism to focus on gratitude and the needs of others?

Now is the perfect time to invite our children to engage in community service. Not only will recipients of the service or donation benefit, but participation in civic engagement also offers clear benefits to kids.

Research shows that community service engagement can help young children develop feelings of empathy for others. These do not need to be complex interactions: activities like donating food or outgrown clothing increase the ability of children under ten to understand the experiences and needs of others. Volunteerism among teens is linked to lower rates of drug use and pregnancy, and teen volunteers are more likely to have stronger academic outcomes and lower risks of suicide. Research also shows that kids involved in community service grow into adults who typically have a stronger work ethic, continue to volunteer, and have higher voting rates.

Furthermore, recent research in JAMA Network Open found that volunteering through school, a religious organization or a community group is associated with better overall health and wellness among children and adolescents. The study showed that kids who participated in community service in the prior year were 34% more likely to be in excellent or very good health, 66% more likely to be considered “flourishing” (a positive measure of overall well-being), and 35% less likely to have behavioral problems, as compared to children and youth that had not participated in community service.

Volunteering may also be related to better mental health. In recent years, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior have risen significantly among young people, and recent federal data show that in 2021 more than 40% of high school students felt sad or hopeless. The 2023 study mentioned above found that kids ages 12 and older who volunteered were roughly 25% less likely to have reported anxiety than peers who did not. Although the research cannot prove direct causation, its findings are worth noting, given that nearly 1 out of 5 kids 12 and older experience anxiety.

Nonprofit organizations and schools can spark kids’ interest by showing young people how to translate their passions and skills into action. Experts suggest we actively talk to children about both community needs, and the impact nonprofits are having within their community and state. Many community organizations offer family volunteer options, allowing parents and children to serve side-by-side. Community foundations across Indiana actively engage young leaders, and countless school groups coordinate giving and service opportunities. Above all, experts advise that young people have a voice in and ownership of their commitment.

Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, food pantries and local meal programs, encourages families to volunteer together. The organization’s website highlights several of the benefits, the value of shared time and increased levels of happiness.

Teaching children the value of civic engagement and volunteerism often starts at home. Parents can help children as young as three years old learn the behaviors and attitudes associated with community service – the ideas of caring and sharing. Elementary students often start basic giving and service projects through faith-based and afterschool programs, such as the Scouts. We should talk to middle school children about their place in their community, including direct paths for impact. By high school, students have the capacity to understand complex problems, including ways they can contribute to solutions. For example, the Dekko Foundation has a long tradition of engaging teens, placing value on meaningful philanthropic opportunities at home, school and within the community. At each age, parents and family members serve as crucial role models for giving back.

Like so many of the skills we teach our children, philanthropy takes practice. Yet with benefits such as increased confidence, improved collaboration skills, and increased social networking skills, training our children to serve has great rewards. With new research indicating a positive link between volunteering and well-being, acts of service may increase a young person’s health and happiness. During this period of thankfulness and beyond, we can all embody the spirit of Hoosier hospitality by teaching our children to take care of our neighbors, our communities, and our world.

Lanza K, Hunt ET, Mantey DS, Omega-Njemnobi O, Cristol B, Kelder SH. Volunteering, Health, and Well-being of Children and Adolescents in the United States. JAMA Network Open. 2023;6(5):e2315980. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.15980

NOTE: This is an update of a 2017 column on the same subject.