In today's segment of VolunteerSpot's Summer of Service, we have Marilyn Price-Mitchell joining us to discuss how kids become engaged, active volunteer leaders working towards change within our communities and throughout the world. Thanks Marilyn!
How Youth Become Passionate About Giving
By Marilyn Price-Mitchell
Raising children to become active citizens doesn’t happen by chance. In my research study, Civic Learning at the Edge: Transformative Stories of Highly Engaged Youth, I interviewed students from around the country who had adopted passionate causes between the ages of 14 and 18. Developmentally, this is the age when kids form civic identities that often stay with them for the rest of their lives.
The students in my study reflected on their adolescence and the critical experiences that led them to work for civic causes. Being familiar with the common steps in their journeys can help parents and other adults support kids through these important learning experiences by listening, encouraging, and appreciating the process.
Five Steps Toward Passion and Purpose
1. Connecting to Others in Need
Kids who develop a passion to serve can usually point to a critical volunteer experience that became transformative for them. The experience always involves face-to-face interaction with people who are different from them and most often, with people who are in need. These experiences might occur in food banks, homeless shelters, nursing homes, disaster areas, and places where people live in poverty. Similarly, those who work for environmental causes point to intense moments of learning, involving a deep personal connection to nature or animals. Their experiences might occur in animal shelters, wildlife refuges, or experiential projects that raise awareness of environmental issues.
2. Confronting Moral Dilemmas
When teenagers form relationships with those who are in need, who may be in pain, or who may have few resources, it creates moral dilemmas for them. They begin to ask questions that compare their own circumstances to others. For the first time, they may wonder why people are hungry or why children are homeless. The same is true for the environment. Kids feel such a connection to nature that they begin to ask deep moral questions about how we care for the planet. Why don’t we pay attention to climate change? Or protect certain species of animals?
As they consider these moral dilemmas, they reach deep within themselves and think about their values. Instead of mimicking the opinions they have heard from others, such as parents or friends, they begin to form their own conclusions. They need to process their feelings with adults who are not judgmental, who trust in their abilities to find their own answers. Often, these adults are leaders of volunteer programs, older siblings, or a favorite teacher. Encouraging children to discuss their feelings with others, or even write about them, helps facilitate learning.
4. Perspective Shift
Through reflection, talking with others, and linking their values to the issues that impact them, young people experience a shift in perspective. They begin to see how issues are connected to each another and become interested in understanding the root causes of societal problems. For example, they may see links between social and environmental issues, understanding that climate change will most affect people living in poverty. They may connect sex trafficking with girls living in poverty in Cambodia. They may understand the need for breast cancer research because it affected a mother or aunt. These connections begin to fuel an inner purpose and passion toward specific, important causes.
5. Creating a Passionate Civic Identity
Young people reach the last step in this journey when they see themselves as active, engaged citizens. They are able to articulate their beliefs about how they understand a social or environmental issue and they hold a worldview that incorporates themselves as agents of change. They know that small things they do to contribute to social and environmental causes have a big impact. At this point, they are ready and able to make a long-term commitment to public service. They have a passion for giving!
Marilyn is a developmental psychologist, educator, researcher, and writer from Bainbridge Island, WA. She is founder of Roots of Action where she brings evidence-based research on youth development to popular audiences. She is also president of the National ParentNet Association, a nonprofit devoted to building parent-school-community partnerships that help kids succeed in school and life. Connect with Marilyn on Facebook, Twitter or at www.mpricemitchell.com.
©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. May not be reprinted or adapted without permission.
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