Volunteering – What does the research tell us?
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Prescriptions for Parents

Making Scientific Research Practical for Families

Volunteering is a wonderful way to help children learn beneficial values and develop personal characteristics that will last them a lifetime.  Compassion, empathy, gratitude, community awareness and responsibility – even job skills – can all be learned through volunteering.  At this time of year the available options for families to volunteer together are numerous, and we encourage you to take time this season to think of helping others.  As the research documents, you will also be helping yourselves and your children – in your emotional well being, but also your physical health.


A 2012 study of toddlers under the age of two demonstrated increased happiness in the toddlers who gave away their treats to a puppet.  Their happiness was greater when they gave away their own treat versus when giving away a treat that was provided to them for the purpose of giving it to the puppet.    Aknin LB, Hamlin JK,  Dunn EW.  “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children” PLOS One  June 14, 2012 10.1371/journal.pone.0039211
Helpful Hints:
1.  Cut your toddler’s sandwich into several pieces and encourage him to give one piece to another family member.
2.   Involve your toddler in tasks that help others.   Allow him to stir the cookie dough and walk with you when you deliver the cookies.
3.  Talk about sharing and talk about your emotions.  “I feel happy when I can take cookies to our neighbor.”
4.   Read books about helping others.  (The Berenstain Bears and the Joy of Giving is one example.)
Remember, toddlers learn by imitation!  Let them see you helping others – in your family and in your neighborhood.


This is a wonderful time to teach so many character traits, including generosity and empathy.  New research shows that children as young as 3 years of age will take into account the other person's needs when determining whether or not to share.  So, definitely talk with your children about other’s feelings and situations.
Kanngiesser, P and Warneken, F.  Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 2012;
  1. Point out situations where your child can help another person.  “Let’s help her pick up the books she dropped.”  
  2. Participate with your child in helping your community.  “Let’s see how much trash we can pick up at the park before we leave.”
  3. Continue to read books that promote helping, sharing, volunteering
  4. Let’s surprise your sister and make her bed…etc.
A study from the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Riverside, evaluated 400 9 – 11 year olds who were divided into two groups.  The preadolescents who were asked to perform three acts of kindness each week for four weeks were viewed by their classmates as more friendly and were more likely to be chosen as colleagues on a school project.   Layous K, Nelson SK, et al.  “Kindness Counts:  Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well Being”   DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051380
Another study of 10th graders researched those who volunteered with elementary age children in after school programs for 60-90 minutes a week for 10 weeks versus those who were on a wait list for volunteering.  The adolescents who volunteered showed a marked reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease including cholesterol levels and body mass index.  Schreier HM, Schonert-Reichl KA,  Chen E.  “Effect of Volunteering on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents:  A Randomized Controlled Trial.  JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(4):327-332. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1100.
Set the example
  1. Consider volunteering – at your child’s school, with your child’s athletic team, at church
  2. Talk with your child about the happiness you derive from those activities.  Be careful to minimize any complaining about these activities!
Have a family meeting
  1. Set aside time this week for a family meeting.   Prepare for the meeting by researching volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood.      (Many cities have opportunities listed on-line.)
  2. Let your children help choose which one volunteer activity your family can do together this holiday season.
  3. Find an elderly or single parent in your neighborhood or church, and visit with cookies, a card and spend a few minutes asking about their needs.
Many studies demonstrate the benefits of volunteering for adults – including improved physical health, lower mortality rates, decreased rates of depression, improved social ties with less social isolation, improved functioning at older ages, and even a decrease in chronic pain after volunteering.  One study found a 44 % lower mortality rate over a five year period for elderly people who volunteered with two or more organizations, even when the data was adjusted for age, health habits and social support.  Oman, D., Thoresen, C.E., and McMahon, K. (1999) “Volunteerism and Mortality among the Community- Dwelling Elderly.” Journal of Health Psychology, 4(3): 301-316.
Volunteering has even been shown to improve the long-term outcome for individuals who are in drug and alcohol recovery programs.  Pagano ME, Zeltner BB, et al.  Helping Others and Long-term Sobriety: Who Should I Help to Stay Sober?  Alcohol Treat Q. 2009 Jan 1; 27(1): 38–50.
doi:  10.1080/07347320802586726

The benefits are tremendous!  For additional information see our previous newsletters on Gratitude and Generosity
Copyright © 2015 National Physician's Center, All rights reserved.

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