After writing yesterday’s article about the Lewis family, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact volunteering can have on families with children. The typical family vacation, especially if said family happens to include a teenager, is often rife with stress. Maybe the kids don’t want to go, or they’re moody and difficult. Every car ride is punctuated by a hundred are-we-there-yets. The Chevy Chase-style Big Ben/Parliament rotary tour comes to mind. Family vacations are supposed to be quality-time adventures. They’re supposed to end with everyone feeling closer, happier, more unified and refreshed. The trouble is, most typical family vacations don’t end that way at all.
I wonder if a volun-tour, by its very nature, creates a structure within which kids thrive. Simply being in close proximity to local people who have very real needs is sobering for anyone, and kids (including teenagers) tend to be incredibly empathetic. Whining about having an uncharged iPod seems awfully selfish and ridiculous when the person sitting next to you is malnourished. It’s hard to expect children to keep things in perspective when they simply don’t know how lucky they are. We all need a basis for comparison to understand our privilege. It’s not enough to say, “there are starving people in the world.” Those are just words—an abstraction that is easily glossed over or forgotten. For a child used to riding around in a nice car, headphones on, sneakers waxed (or whatever it is they do these days), it takes some real face-to-face learning to make those lessons sink in.
I’m not saying you should volun-tour to “scare straight” your teenager—quite the opposite. A volun-tour is not supposed to be a dangerous or militant experience. Do some thorough research. Think about what you are hoping to get out of your trip, what work you can realistically do, and what part of the world you’d most like your family to see. There are so many different types of tours out there. From volunteer teaching in Costa Rica (the safest of the Central American countries) to sea turtle conservation to building homes in Kenya, the opportunities are as varied as the people who take advantage of them.
The idea is to reinforce compassion, humility, and empathy while doing work that matters. On a traditional family vacation, a family unit travels around together, barely interacting with local people, seeing the sights. The parents are the authority figures and the kids are the kids—acting out when they feel like it, continuing with the familiar family dynamic. Doing work—building a house, spending time with orphans, teaching refugees—turns the family dynamic on its head. Now the family works side by side, helping other families or helping the environment. The contention that is so easily roused when you’re on your own is replaced with support as you experience something profound and emotional together.
The experience won’t end when you get back on the plane. The kids will take those lessons back to their friends, to the soccer field, and to the classroom. The next time someone says, “there are starving people in the world,” your kids will know what that means—and they’ll know they can do something to help.