5 Ways to Inspire Teenagers to Take a Step Towards Community Service

Guest post by Aileen Pablo

Motivating youth to serveMost parents can’t even get them to tidy up their rooms, so what are your chances of motivating teenagers to leave their computers and work on an “impossible” mission, right?

If that’s how you view today’s youth, I suggest you quit leading them. Your perception of who you are dealing with will shape your behaviour, and treating teenagers of today like they are children is a great recipe for inaction.

A 2008 Boston Globe article titled “Youths propel a push toward volunteerism” reported record numbers of young people volunteering. Here are the facts:

  1. American teenagers today are 100% more likely to volunteer than those in the last few decades, according to government research.
  2. The internet increased awareness of various social issues, thus propelling young people into volunteerism.
  3. Approximately 66% of students entering college in 2006 “felt that helping others in need was essential or very important,” the highest rate in 26 years”.

According to another 2007 study by CIRCLE, 25% of those who attended college volunteered, while only 11% of those with no college experience do. I needn’t tell you about the record number of students heading to college, right?

But all these contributors to the jump in volunteerism – the internet, better education, etc. – are just part of the story. The main driver, I believe, is people just like you: Community leaders who inspire the younger generation.

In fact, the same Boston Globe article reported that one of the most significant catalysts of increasing youth volunteerism is a mindset shift among adults to see teenagers as an asset. And when you see teenagers as an asset, you begin to delegate…

Which brings me to my first point:

Grant Autonomy

How would you like it if someone was always breathing down your neck when you work? Well, that’s exactly how most teenagers feel.

Most adults get pretty defensive when I bring this up. “They should act more responsibly, THEN I will grant them autonomy,” they tell me. But the opposite is actually true: how can young people act more responsibly when not given the chance?

If anything, psychological studies have found that as you place more trust on someone, he/she is more likely to behave the way you want them to.

Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, was one of the first community leaders who had such a mindset shift. He didn’t set out to “use” young people around him. He set out to give youth the tools to be “change-makers” – trusting that they will be motivated enough to take him up on the offer.

Show Empathy

When a person doesn’t feel understood, he/she will never try to understand. That is the reality in which most youth live.

Empathy is more than just “putting yourself in another person’s shoes” or being a really good listener. That advice has been repeated so much, there’s almost no meaning to it anymore.

Empathy involves feeling what others are feeling. If your child’s pet rabbit died, and you empathize, you won’t say, “I understand.” You’ll grieve with him or her.

If a teenager is concerned about looking “uncool” when volunteering, it’s something you shouldn’t dismiss as “teens being teens.” Empathy involves decisive action: What can you do to make volunteering cool?

Lead By Example

James A. Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” There’s a biological reason for that. Not psychological, but biological.

I won’t go through it here but if you’re interested, read about the effects of mirror neurons on group behaviour.

Bottom line: Don’t expect youth to do what you wouldn’t do personally.

Recognize Their Efforts

Feeling like you’re invisible is a great way to kill motivation. After all, why contribute when you don’t feel like you’re contributing? This is why it’s crucial to communicate to young people that their work is making a difference.

What most leaders do wrong is to do this to a group instead of to an individual. There’s a difference in impact when you tell a group of 100 how well they did vs. when you tell one person directly.

What’s the Purpose?

What’s the purpose for the teen in doing all these things?

Is it to keep their parents happy? Is it to spend time with that guy/girl they like? Or – and this is the most common – is it to accumulate some kind of points from school? All these are poor motivation.

Instead, try explaining how the youth’s community service is making a difference. Just how important is the work he/she is doing? What would happen if people like him or her doesn’t show up?

This works because a purpose in life is one of the most critical factors of psychological – and physical – health. It’s part of the reason why retirees who volunteer tend to live longer and are less likely to suffer from depression compared to their stay-at-home counterparts.

Or as revered psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

Aileen is part of the team behind Open Colleges, one of the leading providers of Online Education in Australia. When not working, Aileen often participates in career and personality development seminars in the Philippines.

(Photo from Phillip John Bernardino)

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5 thoughts on “5 Ways to Inspire Teenagers to Take a Step Towards Community Service

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  3. Love this article! You made some really great observations and as a parent who believes strongly that kids and teens should learn volunteerism, I’m going to take some of your pointers to heart. Nice work.

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  5. Really nice post Aileen. I agree across the board. I think pretty much every point you raise is applicable to all volunteers, not just teens. But what you said about shifting our conceptions of teens really resonates. I think you’re spot on that once an organization changes the way they view teens (and even Millennials in many cases) they can start tapping into the collective energies of these groups of people.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

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