Above: Zander Ward and his friend Anthony help with food distribution
We live in a selfie society, where if you don’t capture something on your smartphone and share it immediately, it’s as if it didn’t happen. And while there are positive benefits to social media, we are seeing an increased need for a better balance between sharing about ourselves with others and giving to others, especially in children. With new ways to digitally connect arising almost daily, how can we raise kids who focus more on giving than receiving – a generation of socially conscious people?
More than just being aware of social issues, being socially conscious means understanding the society we live in and the importance of contributing to it. One of the most meaningful ways to do this is to volunteer. Doing so achieves more than just helping others; it can be a healthy and important way to combat a rise in anxiety and mental health conditions, both in adults and children. But with children growing up in the digital age, it’s important to face these issues earlier and provide a healthy balance.
According to Laura Jessup, LPC, NCC and therapist at Gainesville Professional Counseling Center, in the past decade there has been an increase in academic pressures and demands on children as a result of the negative impacts of excessive social media use and bullying. She believes these increases are closely related to the rise in the number of children diagnosed with mental health conditions. Clinical depression and anxiety disorders diagnoses, specifically, have increased the most in our youth within the past few years.
Laura believes that, “Now more than ever, it is important to teach children about their own emotions and behavioral responses, as well as the impact they have on others. Helping children improve social-emotional awareness of themselves and others can dramatically affect the way they perceive and follow healthy, positive social skills and expectations.”
Leading by Example
The Wards are a local family who have made it a priority to teach their children the value of being socially conscious from an early age. Mom, Michelle, grew up volunteering – it was part of her family’s values and expectations and she and husband Matt passed that along to their two boys, Ben, 12 and Zander, 10. When Ben turned 10, Michelle and Matt asked him to research how he wanted to give back to his community. The Wards knew that whatever options Ben came up with, they would have to accompany him due to his age. Ben came up with a list, but it was a free local concert at the Battlefield Garden Center that left an indelible impression on him. Serve Our Willing Warriors (SOWW), a local nonprofit organization that cares for wounded service members by providing a respite at the Retreat at Bull Run, was the beneficiary of the concert. A young, wheelchair-bound captain shared her story about how SOWW made a positive impact on her. Ben made his decision that night.
Of the ways that children can volunteer for SOWW, Ben chose to fundraise. Through bake sales and other events, he has raised more than $12,000 for the nonprofit over the past two years. (He’s also become somewhat of a local celebrity for it too!) His hard work and dedication had another positive effect; from watching Ben work to help others, younger brother Zander decided he wanted to give back as well. He decided not to wait until he turned 10, and about two years ago, he began volunteering his time, giving his own money, and collecting food for the Haymarket Regional Food Pantry. Sometimes he even fundraises alongside Ben. He has donated about 2,500 pounds of food so far, and has worked with his parents stocking the pantry and cleaning after hours.
The Wards are a great example of the ways to instill social consciousness in kids even at an early age.
“Even toddlers can start learning and practicing pro-social behaviors for their communities,” said Laura. “Things such as picking up litter and throwing it in the trash can or waving and smiling at a stranger. Older children can be encouraged to engage in similar simple, charitable acts, such as holding the door for someone, offering to help a person in need in a store or parking lot, or even just asking another child that looks upset ‘Are you OK? Anything I can do to help?’ Each of these prosocial behaviors can be used as excellent opportunities to practice social awareness, selflessness, and empathy.”
Another local couple, Sarah and Stephen Tyndall of Haymarket, wanted to show their two young children, Paxton, 6, and Maxwell, 4, that there is life outside of their neighborhood.
“I believe that it is my job as a parent to do my best to raise respectful, well-rounded, caring and kind individuals. I think that being socially conscious and serving others will allow my children to gain perspective. I also hope they learn to be empathetic towards others. Having the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and to see things from a different point of view will serve them well in their future,” said Sarah.
The Tyndall’s took this desire further by starting a nonprofit called Boxes of Basics. Both of the boys help mom receive clothing from donors and pack boxes of outfits that are distributed to local families.
There are myriad benefits to fostering volunteerism and social consciousness in children. As Sarah mentioned, it teaches empathy and Ben Ward can tell you that he has learned to be responsible in his tenure as a fundraiser; formulating a dialogue to explain to those you’re asking for money about the organization and keeping track of fundraising events and funds is a hefty responsibility. Children who volunteer also gain experience working with others – certainly a lifelong skill that will help in their futures. Volunteering provides opportunities to explore new interests and develop new passions. It’s also been shown to reduce stress and provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Making a difference in others’ lives teaches not only civic responsibility and ways to give back, but it’s also good for one’s mental health.
And who couldn’t use a good old-fashioned mental health boost?
Laura Jessup adds, “Socially conscious children have a general understanding of social expectations, are able and willing to put effort into acting in developmentally appropriate ways that are consistent with those expectations and are tuned in to the basic emotions of those around them.”
When asked why he likes to give back, Ben Ward said simply, “It makes me feel good knowing I’ve helped others.”