Teaching a lifetime of values: A family that serves together raises kids who continue to serve

Published: Tuesday, April 17 2012 12:43 a.m. MDT

The Petersen and Crane families volunteer together at the Utah Food Bank several times a year.

Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

When it comes to fighting hunger, the Petersen family works together efficiently — no directions required.

Eleven-year-old Brenden Petersen, happily perched atop a 4-foot pile of canned goods at the Utah Food Bank, launches green beans and mandarin oranges onto an aluminum sorting table. The cans thunk down in front of his 9-year-old brother, who uses his arms as a conveyor belt, sending tomato paste and kidney beans rumbling on down to mom and dad. Mom sorts the food into boxes labled with permanent marker. Dad packs everything up.

Volunteering together is a regular activity for the South Jordan family. The kids say they like rolling the cans around and checking out all the weird food people donate. "Like canned fish," Brenden says, crinkling up his freckled nose. "Eww." But Mom and dad have a bigger goal in mind. By getting them involved in their community when they are young, Justin and Karen Peterson hope to instill in their children a life-long love for service.

"We are very blessed," Karen Petersen said. "I want them to give back."

Experts say there's no better way to teach children about doing good than as a family. Especially when kids are young, though, nonprofits don't always appreciate what families have to offer. Children can be uncoordinated, difficult to manage and — in some cases — a liability risk. So, while volunteering together is rewarding, it can require creativity.

Why volunteer as a family?

Boston mother Lynne Harper started volunteering with her two children when the youngest was just a babe in arms. Now the director of programs for The Volunteer Family, a nonprofit dedicated to matching families with service opportunities, Harper traces her passion for service back to her own childhood, when her mother regularly carted her around distributing food to the needy and visiting the sick.

The memories aren't all fond.

"It'd be a Friday afternoon and we'd be delivering 'Meals on Wheels,'" she said. "The whole car would smell like fish, then you'd go into the elderly person's home and there would be a lot of cats. I just remember thinking, 'Ugh. Do I have to go?'"

But, she remembers, there was something about the way those forgotten grandmas and grandpas eyes lit up when they saw her.

"It really stayed with me," she said.

Research shows people who volunteer as children are twice as likely to engage in service later in life. Sixty-four percent of teens who volunteer picked up the habit by observing family members serving, according to a study conducted by Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs.

"If you just teach kids ideas or values in abstract, it may never be anything more than a good idea," said Sam Hardy, an assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University who specializes in adolescent development. "When you volunteer with them, they get to put those ideas into action. They start to value charity personally."

Volunteering from a young age not only helps children gain a social conscience, but also helps them develop self esteem and understand how they fit in the world, he said. Studies demonstrate people who volunteered as children have a higher sense of self efficacy, or belief that they can make a difference.

"If you are doing good things, you view yourself positively," Hardy said. "You see yourself as someone who can accomplish things. It's empowering."

Finding service opportunities

Finding a place to volunteer with children — especially young children — can be frustrating. Nonprofits worry about children's safety and ability to perform the job. Volunteer coordinators worry they'll be turned into babysitters.

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