August 11, 2014 —

Children of all ages watch everything their parents do. Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you take a lot of pills – perhaps more than the recommended dose? It’s difficult to do these things while explaining to your teen why they shouldn’t.

On the other hand, are you an active member in your community? Do you volunteer at area hospitals? Do you lead a youth group? Do you take part in cleaning up your neighborhood?

Your teens are watching these things, too. And whether it’s negative behavior or positive behavior, teens instinctively want to be like their parents. So, rather than just tell them to get off the couch or do volunteer work, it’s important that we as parents set the example.

A second powerful influence on our teens is their peer group. In other words, the teens that your child meets while volunteering are the kinds of people you want them to become friends with, as opposed to those who abuse cough medicine because they’re bored.

Volunteering does wonderful things for teens. It lets them experience doing something for somebody else, something many teens rarely experience. It teaches them how to work in groups to accomplish something bigger than themselves. It gives them satisfaction of having made a difference. Your teen will discover he or she likes this feeling, and soon he or she will be asking to go to Romania to work with dentists in small poor villages – an experience that changed and shaped my own teen’s life.

What are some things you and your teens could do together?

  1. Serve food at a homeless shelter. You can sign up to do this on a regular basis, or volunteer one time. Few things are as unforgettable as serving Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter.
  2. Work together to build something in the community. Habitat for Humanity is an example of a program that puts you to work for a good cause. You don’t even have to know how to use a hammer (though they’ll teach you); you just have to care.
  3. Travel to a less fortunate part of the world. Teens can’t help but be impacted by the shattering realization of how others live around the globe. A trip like this can change their perspective and teach them to value the opportunities they’ve been given.
  4. Clean up a local park. This is where a teen realizes the impact humans can have on the environment. Armed with mosquito spray and gloves, your family will come home with a sunburn, tired muscles and the satisfaction of making their part of their world a little more beautiful.

The key is that you have to set the example. It doesn’t matter if you like mowing yards or building homes or cleaning up creeks; what you’re doing is showing your teen what it means to give while also spending time together. Giving your kids the gift of thinking about somebody beside themselves is a gift that they will take with them into their adult years.

We all want our teens to become compassionate, empathetic, tolerant and filled with a sense of gratitude and community responsibility. But first, we have to be the adult we want our child to become.

Harry H. Harrison Jr. is a NYTIMES best selling parenting author with over 3.5 million books in print. He has been interviewed on over 25 television programs, and featured in over 75 local and national radio stations including NPR. His books are available in more than 35 countries throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Norway, South America, China, Saudi Arabia and in the Far East. For more information visit www.fearlessparenting.com.