By Allison Amy Wedell
Anyone who has ever volunteered knows how good it makes them feel—and it’s no different for kids. But did you know studies have found links between volunteering and positive self-esteem?
One such study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, found that 55 percent of teens surveyed enjoy volunteering, and that both big and small acts of kindness had a positive effect on their feelings of self-worth. Interestingly, the kids who got a bigger self-esteem boost volunteered helping strangers—but helping people they know is good for kids too.
But why is it important for kids to have good self-esteem? No, we’re not raising a generation of narcissists. Rather, kids with good self-esteem believe they can handle whatever life throws at them. Good self-esteem is also essential to kids’ emotional health: In essence, it’s important that kids like themselves.
A boost in self-esteem isn’t the only benefit kids can get from volunteering, either. Here are a few others:
- By causing them to branch out into a field they may be unfamiliar with, volunteering can help kids figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
- Volunteering connects them to other people they may not otherwise meet, especially after interacting with their peers five days a week. At a volunteer job, kids will meet people of many ages and walks of life.
- Volunteering can help kids learn new skills, from cooking to working with tools to interacting with the public.
- At a time when many kids are first experiencing depression and anxiety, volunteering helps them focus outward. This can give them a sense of perspective and achievement.
My daughter Teagan and my niece Erica both volunteer on a regular basis, so I interviewed them to find out what the experience was like and how it made them feel.
Erica, who is 15, volunteered last summer at the child care center/preschool she used to attend when she was younger. She spent two to three days per week with the two- and three-year-olds, playing with them, helping them eat, and generally helping the teachers. She still misses them: “My last day, I was sobbing,” she says.
Volunteering at the child care center made Erica feel good. “The teachers always told me how they appreciated me, because they’re really stressed all the time. They wanted me there, and I was helping,” she explained. “I was positively impacting them, helping them learn something.”
And this feeling isn’t a surprise to Erica, because she remembers how she felt about the older kids who would come back and volunteer when she was little. “I looked up to them and learned from them.” So she knew she was having the same effect on these kids. When she gave them that extra attention, it “made them want to go to child care more,” she says, adding, “And when their parents would meet me, they would tell me how cool it was, what I was doing.”
Teagan, who is 12, volunteered with her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) all year. Her favorite project took place on Valentine’s Day, a day that can sometimes be tough for LGBTQ kids. She explains, “We made little cards for Valentine’s Day, and we handed them out to people. It wasn’t relationship stuff—most of them said things like, ‘You are amazing’ or ‘You’re beautiful,’ to build other people’s confidence and let them know they’re cared about.”
They especially worked on letting LGBTQ kids know they were welcome. “We invited other people who were part of the LGBTQ community to come and join us, so we let people know that it’s okay to be who you are.”
And why did this endeavor make Teagan feel good? Inclusion, empathy, generosity, and self-esteem. “I felt like it was a part of something. GSA was pretty small, so I felt like I was an important part of it. I tried to imagine how I would feel getting the card that I wrote to them. It felt like I made people feel special and brightened their day. It made me happy, because I was making other people happy.”
Psychological studies are all well and good, but that last line pretty much summed up the link between volunteering and self-esteem for me: “It made me happy, because I was making other people happy.”
Allison Amy Wedell is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social and emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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