Since you were a child (or a younger one), everyone’s been telling you the many benefits of volunteering for any number of organizations. Be it food drives, homeless shelters, or a beach cleanup, volunteering is a no brainer for using your time well. Some programs have you working with children, of course, and that lends itself to specific moments of personal growth. I’ve been doing this particular one for high school students for two years as well as some babysitting and I’ve gathered a few things.
1. Patience, of course. They’re psychological metabolism is different. It’s not slow or fast or anything, it’s just different. Their priorities are personal and entirely their own. Theirs centers almost exclusively on identity. They’re at a lucky age where their idea of survival is self-discovery. So, when you tell them, “Hey, listen up to this info, it’s important,” and they zone out, it’s not blatant disrespect.
2. “Oh, you’re young,” is often times dismissive. There are few things of which they’re constantly reminded more than their youth. After a while it can sound like people aren’t listening and are instead dismissing something about which they feel passionately as a lesser, juvenile issue. So, don’t. Listen. Respond with your older perspective but in a compassionate way. “You’re young, you’ll get over it,” does nothing to help them in the moment. You’re basically saying, “I don’t know how to listen to you.”
3. Perspective on how you’ve grown. It’s easy to look at children and remove yourself from having once been there yourself or to think only of how “stupid” you felt yourself to be at that time, but you’re doing yourself and them a disservice. Instead, it’s critical to focus on what your experiences were at the time, how you felt, and how you feel you may have grown since then. At the same time, take a moment to fully consider the minefield of things they’re dealing with. Compare it to yours. Imagine, if you were in their shoes, how could an adult positively influence you? The general answer to this? Empower them with compassion. “Hey, you’re going to make mistakes, but I support your learning process and will do my best to protect you from the worst.”
4. The brilliance of light conversation. Talking at length about colorful fish or the sounds different animals make. At first it can seem sort of pointless and somewhat infantile (heh), but there’s a certain meditative and recalibrating thing about it. Revisiting once simple ideas with someone who has eyes and ears fresher than yours inspires you to meet them at their plane of imagination. This keeps your mind spry and creative.
5. Putting your ego aside. This is true for most volunteer situations, I’m sure, but it has a central focus here. Your entire purpose in such a context is to tacitly facilitate the growth of someone else, particularly someone a little or much younger than you. That means your personal dilemmas should rest firmly on the backburner. This can be liberating in that it allows you to step outside of yourself and fully into the role of being supportive in someone else’s life. It’s not about you, or the other adults you volunteer with. It’s about the children and cultivating their sense of self as best you can.
6. Empathy. With certain volunteer work it’s sometimes natural to develop vaguely adoptive parent feelings for those you’re looking after. Their sorrow in a small way becomes your own and their triumphs yours, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like a proud dad at a sports game about some achievement of theirs.
7. You’re not so different. Some of the conversations the children have are a lot like the ones you have now with your peers, almost no matter how old you are. There’s still gossip, still insecurity, still a desire for camaraderie. It becomes clear that there’s a common human experience we all share, regardless of time, place, or background.