Teen Spirit: Give and Let Live

How do you get young people to stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about others? It's worth it: Altruistic teens live happier, healthier, and longer lives.

By Lybi Ma, published on April 29, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

If only teenagers came with an instruction kit. We all know that getting through to them may seem like a case for Unsolved Mysteries—especially when you're dealing with the hot-button issues. You know those all-too common scenarios: You find a bag of pot kicking around the floor of the family car. You come across cigarette butts under the hedges. Or, you learn that your kid is partaking in unprotected sex. Clearly, any number of things can go wrong, and badly.

Changing the way a kid thinks and behaves may seem as thorny as a root canal, but it doesn't have to be such a painful battle. Researchers studying teens and altruism have been unearthing some promising data. For one thing, having a giving nature actually makes kids happier and healthier; and they end up living a whole lot longer. Granted, our culture promotes individualism, which can be a good thing; you get plenty of strong-minded young adults. Then again, it can be a bad thing; you get plenty of self-centered kids who think the world revolves around them.

A giving nature has been documented to help us in myriad ways. According to Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, authors of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, those who do good have healthier hearts, are less depressed, have higher self-esteem, and are generally more successful. It's no surprise, then, that dynamic CEOs are commonly altruistic and giving. In fact, according to one study that appeared in Psychosomatic Medicine, a healthy mental outlook is linked more to giving help than getting help. So prodding our kids to get out of themselves and become more involved with others can lead to a better life for them now and in the years to come. Here are a few more reasons to encourage a giving nature in your teenager:

  • Teens who give tend to have good family relationships. Communication is less stifled, which in turn means less risky behavior such as substance abuse, alcoholism, and unsafe sex.
  • Charitable young people are less likely to cry over what they don't have and more likely to feel grateful for what they do have. One study from the University of California at Davis showed that people who expressed gratitude felt better and functioned better physically.
  • Altruistic youth tend to be socially competent and have higher self-esteem. Being giving requires confidence; reaching out to others is not for the timid or insecure.
  • Giving younger people are more likely to be healthy in middle age. According to research from Wellesley College, benevolent kids will likely eat right, not smoke, exercise, and visit the doctor regularly later in life.

But how do you nurture a helping spirit in your kid? That can be tricky, especially when they tend to sleep until noon and break out in hives over picking up a broom. So here are a few ideas to get your teen off the computer or the couch:

  • Be a role model. If you do good, your kids will do good. Sometimes it can be as simple as being kind to others. If your teen sees you helping the old lady cross the street, he will likely do the same.
  • Learning how to save a life can change your kid's life. Encourage your kid to become a lifeguard this summer. Or have him or her learn CPR. Knowing these basic skills can embolden a child.
  • Suggest joining a tutoring group. If your kid excels in school, she can certainly help younger children learn good study habits, too. Watching a kid learn can be empowering in itself.
  • Most schools have community service groups, from manning the local church soup kitchen to joining the Human Rights Coalition. Promote involvement in clubs that spark your teen's interest.
  • Heroism comes in all sizes. Courageousness in the face of injustice is often hard to come by, but if your kid sees the popular bully taking down the meek fellow classmate, encourage him to stop the abuse—just by saying "hey, you can't do that here."