Encouraging Teen Contribution
Make Meaningful Contributions
The question driving adolescence is “Who am I?” To ensure our teens lead rich adult lives we want the answer to be: “I am somebody who matters. Someone who makes a difference.” Knowing they can make meaningful contributions is one of the essential building blocks of resilience. Young people who understand they can and should serve others and their communities are also contributing to their own healthy development.
The 7 Cs of Resilience
Contribution fits within a larger comprehensive strategy to develop resilient youth poised for success. The model is described in Building Resilience in Children and Teens and it includes seven interwoven assets known to build strong, capable young people: confidence, competence, connection, coping, control, character, and contribution.
Parents, teachers, and other youth-development professionals influence whether or not teens will develop these protective qualities. None of these C’s stand alone. For example, youth develop confidence when they learn new skills and gain new competencies. They are better able to cope with obstacles when they have a protective circle of connections supporting them. And youth with character recognize the value of contributing to the world.
What Contribution Means
It’s hard for teens to answer the “Who Am I?” question. We shouldn’t add pressure on them by simply telling them they must contribute. Instead, we need to help them understand what we mean by the value of contributing. Each of us has a role in society and is expected to play the part that best matches our talents and interests. Finding that “part” is not an event, it is something that takes time. We will support them as they try out ways they can be uniquely successful. In the meantime, we want them to understand that each of us changes the world one good deed at a time. All kindness and generosity makes a difference. When we contribute to the well-being of our families and communities, we make a more livable world. Even small acts of goodwill can have great impact. When our teens understand and live by this philosophy, they’ll know that each and every one of them have the ability to change the world for the better.
It is our role as parents and caring adults to fully prepare our youth to become the next generation of responsible, contributing adults.
Mattering Feels Good
Adolescents are exposed to both opportunities that reinforce their healthy development and to forces and low expectations that can undermine it. Too many youth become used to adults rolling their eyes when they speak of young people. We must improve the chances that our teens are exposed to positive expectations and shielded from undermining messages that can be damaging.
Youth surrounded by gratitude thrive. When young people work to improve their communities, they develop a meaningful sense of purpose. They receive positive protective messages from people besides their parents such as, “We are lucky to have you,” or “I appreciate you.” They absorb the critical message, “I expect good things from you.”
These powerful messages can be earned in every community. As young people help the elderly, keep their neighborhoods clean, and serve as mentors to younger children, they earn reinforcing “thank-yous.” They forge highly meaningful connections with their neighbors, schools, and community members. While they can contribute on a small scale within families and local communities, they can also serve in ways that help them realize their impact on the world at large.
Young people also benefit when their ideas are taken seriously. Whenever possible, we should seek their opinions, especially about matters that concern them. This demonstrates that we value what they have to say. This kind of respect enhances their sense of control, which in turn increases their resilience.
Contribution also plays an important protective role in our children’s lives. Young people who contribute to their neighbors and communities avoid problems. The Search Institute and others have reported that teens who volunteer — even an hour a week — are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in harmful behaviors.
The Ultimate Act of Resilience
We wish we could protect our children from misfortune. But that’s not realistic. We all must learn to survive life’s inevitable challenges. And to manage its complexities. Those of us who get through the toughest of times rarely do so alone.
The ultimate act of resilience is to have the strength to turn to another person and say, “I need a hand.” This may not be easy, but it’s necessary. We want to raise children who know they can seek help without shame. When they serve others they learn that it feels good to give. That it’s deeply satisfying to lift up another person. That those who contribute to others’ lives feel honored, even blessed, to have been there at the right time. They learn that they often receive more than they give.
This awareness allows them to more comfortably reach out in their time of need. They know that the person supporting them does so out of a sense of purpose, not pity. Young people who contribute recognize there is no shame in needing help. This vital lesson prepares them to be stronger — more resilient — in the face of unforeseen challenges because they will not be alone.
Help Teens See Their Best Selves
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Many of us indeed find our purpose in life, and our shared humanity, through service. Perhaps we have volunteered at a soup kitchen, helped out at the local library, spent time with the elderly, weeded plants at the corner park, or taken the trash to the curb for a neighbor on vacation. Our teens watch us as we contribute and model values such as generosity, compassion, and empathy.
It is so easy to dwell on our own problems, and to become overwhelmed by the curveballs we have been thrown. When we serve others, we gain a fresh perspective. We are better able to see our good fortunes. We become grateful for things that we may have taken for granted. And having gratitude is highly protective to our well-being.
Adolescence is an uncertain time. It’s not uncommon for teens to have plenty of doubt. We must get them to refocus the lens through which they view themselves. When we encourage them to contribute, they see the positive impact they make on others. They experience being recognized for the good they have done. They learn to see their best selves in action.
Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia