“Think not what your family and community can do for you,
but what you can do for your family and community.”
(John F. Kennedy, adapted)
This isn’t an either-or proposition.
Our kids must learn how to advocate for themselves – so they can access the accommodations and services they need.
But – a full and happy life isn’t just about getting our needs met. It’s also about contributing to our world by exercising our unique passions and gifts.
Are we teaching our kids (of all ages) to serve – to add value to the common good – at home and in their community?
Their lives can be turned upside down – for the better – when they realize that they are needed.
Major Impact on Quality of Life
Parents often ask me what they can do that will have a BIG impact on their child’s skill development, quality of life, and readiness for adulthood.
My answer? Support your child in finding ways to serve – to contribute – in their home, school, and community.
The learning and networking that flows from this can’t be measured.
Through well-planned and well-supported service, kids:
- experience themselves as needed by others
- discover their passions and their gifts
- meaningfully practice communication and interpersonal skills
- explore career interests
- gain employment skills and practical life skills
- learn about their community
- earn the respect and gratitude of others
- develop relationships with people who share their interests
- develop career and personal networks
- stretch their concept of what they can do
- practice responsibility (doing needed tasks even when they don’t want to)
- develop dreams and goals for their future
Ways to Serve At Home
Explain to your child that everyone’s help is needed so that life can be good for the whole family.
Allow them to choose one chore from a selection of two or three options you’ve thought through ahead of time. In planning the options, consider your child’s interests, skills, and support needs. Start small. Let your child chose from a short list of small, do-able tasks.
Teach your child the chore using the I Do – We Do – You Do method. (Demonstrate first, then do it with the child, then observe as the child does it him or herself, then fade away when the child can do it independently). It may take a while for the child to reach independence. Or, if your child has intense support needs, your presence and occasional assistance may always be needed. Still – your child is contributing to the family and learning valuable skills.
Use the same overall approach to chores for all of your children. For example – if allowance is tied to chores for your other children – do the same for your child with a disability. If allowance is not tied to chores at your house, or if money isn’t a powerful reinforcer, consider if your child needs some other sort of reinforcement (achievement chart tied to privileges, etc.)
Consider using tools such as timers and checklists to reduce your child’s need for reminders and prompts. A chore checklist is also ideal for teaching kids to self evaluate their work (a key employability skill).
Set a date to meet with your child about how things are going. Consider together if it’s time to add another chore or switch to something different. Consider a “raise” (allowance or privileges) for additional responsibilities.
Your child will experience the reality that the rest of the family depends on his or her contribution only if the chore is meaningful and his completion of the chore is consistently expected.
Here is a practical how-to article about chores by the mom of a ten-year-old boy with autism. You’ll obviously need to tailor ideas to your own child’s specific needs.
How to Serve In the Community
Help your child reflect on these questions.
- What do I enjoy doing?
- What environments do I prefer?
- What causes are important to me?
- What do I want to learn more about?
2. Explore opportunities in your community
Check with your local United Way. Most have a database with extensive volunteer opportunities. Also – ask people in your personal network about service opportunities that align with your child’s interests and skills.
Engage your child to the extent possible in the process (reviewing the United Way database, making phone calls, sending emails, talking with people about opportunities, etc.) – with your support as needed based on age and skills.
Consider using the Think-Plan-Do strategy with your child to involve her in the process of choosing a service opportunity.
3. Visit first, start small
When you and your child have identified a couple of potential service opportunities, plan a visit to each.
Come prepared with a list of questions. Be sure that you understand the proposed tasks and expectations.
It’s wise to begin with a one-day experience. Then consider if an ongoing commitment is a good idea. It may take several one-day experiences at a variety of settings before deciding on an ongoing service role.
4. Before making ongoing service commitment
- Obtain a written job description
- Consider the stress and skill demands of the tasks and environment
- Discuss needed accommodations
- Understand the supervision and support that will be provided
- Consider the possibility of your child working with another volunteer (this could be a current volunteer – or someone from your personal network who would enjoy volunteering with your child).
5. Practical tips
- Start small (an hour or two a week – or even less frequently, to start)
- Be sure the schedule fits your child’s needs and yours
- Develop a checklist of routine tasks your child can refer to
- Be sure he knows what he can do if he has questions or concerns
- Agree on a “try out” period of 5 or so service days with a meeting to review progress and determine if your child desires a longer commitment
- Arrange similar periodic meetings going forward
- Be sure the supervisor has current contact information for emergencies or concerns
6. When the experience comes to an end
Not every service experience works out the way we think it will. And, even when the experience has been ideal, everything has it’s season. If your child’s interests or circumstances change, or if concerns develop, support your child to determine if it is time to modify or end the service experience.
When the time comes, end an ongoing service role in a positive way.
Support your child to:
- Write a resignation and thank you letter
- Provide two weeks notice
- Ask for a letter of reference to add to his career portfolio
- Add the experience to his resume
- Reflect on what he has learned (environments and tasks he likes or doesn’t like, skills he has learned, relationships he has developed, etc.)
Consider a Service Mentor
You may be saying to yourself: “I don’t have time for all this!”
And even if you did have unlimited time and energy (what a fantasy that is, right?) – there is still wisdom in considering a mentor to support your child in volunteer service.
Research shows that, in addition to their parents, kids need to develop supportive relationships with one or more other trusted adults.
Ask yourself if there is a relative or trusted family friend who could serve as your child’s “service mentor”. You may be surprised to find, if you ask, that there are people in your life who would welcome a way to connect with your child. It’s not easy to reach out to others. But you can enrich the life of both your child and a potential mentor by simply asking someone you trust if he or she would like to become involved with your child in the ways described above.
I’ve been an informal “service mentor” myself – and loved every moment of it!
Please share your experiences, ideas, and questions in the comment section.
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Our kids need to be needed. Let’s empower them to make their mark on the world
Photo credits: Monkey Mash Button on Flickr