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Teaching teens to give

As the daughter of a minister, Jennifer James traveled frequently while her family served the less fortunate, from the rural heartland to the inner city. A lot of the time, she went without as a kid. 

"My earliest memories are of working among the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, dipping ice cream for drunks," she said. "I learned a lot and I was a better person for it, but there was a lot of pain along the way."

In her zeal to spare her own three kids, the 44-year-old mom in Oklahoma City, Okla., has given them a world she didn't know – braces on their teeth and cushy furniture for their rooms, fancy computers and private schooling. But now, at 14, 6 and 4, she realizes something is missing.


One mom's blog,, has ideas for small kindnesses.

The best opportunities for teen volunteers are right in your neighborhood. Check with organizations like nursing homes, pet shelters, libraries and children's programs who often need help that teens can provide.


"Pretty soon, it's like the kids just expect it and think you're giving so much because they're just that fantastic and not because you're making sacrifices," James said. "They have no paradigm for sacrifice. Now I'm trying to wind the skein of yarn back up and it's not easy."

Call it entitled child syndrome, the chronic gimmes or just plain spoiled. The lament is a familiar one for many well-meaning parents year round but intensifies at the holidays, especially among older kids who crank up gift demands but can't be coaxed off the couch to give back.

While most public high school students in Florida have to do a certain number of community service hours to graduate, they still may be reluctant to pitch in - or just view it as a burdensome requirement.

It could be your reluctant volunteer just hasn't found the right cause or has been mismatched in the past, said dad David Levinson, a Hollywood screenwriter who founded the Los Angeles community service organization Big Sunday

"Everyone, even the youngest kids, has something that speaks to them, whether it's homelessness, literacy, the environment, seniors, veterans, AIDS, animals, children," he said. "At the same time, everyone has things that don't speak to them, scare them, or turn them off. For me, it's cats. For others it might be, say, homeless people. And, while they might be embarrassed to have that reaction, that's OK." 

If your teen has no interest in cooking, forget the food kitchen as a way to wake up your sleeping giver. If he's not a people person, working closely with the homeless or the infirm might bring out the shy and awkward in him instead.

"Personally, I hate paperwork, and I was stunned to discover that some people actually enjoy it and are good at it," Levinson said.

He suggests projects that have a clear beginning, middle and an end, like cleaning up a single block or repainting a room at a shelter rather than pitching in on long-term problems with intangible solutions.

As the holidays draw closer, said Michel Tvedt, the teen engagement expert for the aid group World Vision, suggest that teens give loved ones charitable gifts instead of material gifts. "Teens will not respond well to guilt," she said, and should be encouraged to "find their own identity as givers."