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How Teenagers Become Passionate About Giving

Five steps that transform youth into engaged citizens.

Teens fight poverty
Teens fight poverty through the ONE Campaign

Amar reflected on his passion to help eliminate homelessness, remembering how working in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina shaped his life. Admittedly, he started volunteering because "it was the thing every high school student does to get into college." Born of Panamanian Hindu parents who immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child, he now co-directs his university's service-learning project in Louisiana and hopes to attend law school.

Melina recalled how she came to work on immigration issues after spending two summers volunteering in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It was there that she "learned to be resourceful, resilient, and above all, a leader." She is now a college student majoring in international development, planning to pursue a career where she can "make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged peoples."

These students were two of the 44 young people who took part in the research study at the foundation of my book, Tommorow's Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. I interviewed students from around the country who had adopted passionate causes between the ages of 14 and 18. Developmentally, this is the age when kids form civic identities that often stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Raising children to become active citizens doesn't happen by chance. The students in my study reflected on their adolescence and the critical experiences that led them to work for civic causes. Being familiar with the common steps in their journeys can help parents, educators, and other adults support kids through these important learning experiences.

Five Steps toward Engaged Citizenship

1. Connecting to Others in Need

Kids who develop a passion to serve can usually point to a critical volunteer experience that became transformative for them. The experience usually involves face-to-face interaction with people who are different from them and most often, with people who are in need. These experiences might occur in food banks, homeless shelters, nursing homes, disaster areas, and places where people live in poverty. Similarly, those who work for environmental causes point to intense moments of learning, involving a deep personal connection to nature or animals. Their experiences might occur in animal shelters, wildlife refuges, or experiential projects that raise awareness of environmental issues.

2. Confronting Moral Dilemmas

When teenagers form relationships with those who are in need, who may be in pain, or who have few resources, it creates moral dilemmas for them. They begin to ask questions that compare their own circumstances to others. For the first time, they may wonder why people are hungry or why children are homeless. The same is true for the environment. Kids feel such a connection to nature that they begin to ask deep moral questions about how we care for the planet. Why don't we pay attention to climate change? Or protect certain species of animals?

3. Self-Reflection

As they consider these moral dilemmas, they reach deep within themselves and think about their values. Instead of mimicking the opinions they have heard from others, such as parents or friends, they begin to form their own conclusions. They need to process their feelings with adults who are not judgmental, who trust in their abilities to find their own answers. Often, these adults are leaders of volunteer programs, older siblings, or a favorite teacher. Encouraging children to discuss their feelings with others, or even write about them, helps facilitate learning.

4. Perspective Shift

Through reflection, talking with others, and linking their values to the issues that impact them, young people experience a shift in perspective. They begin to see how issues are connected to each another and become interested in understanding the root causes of societal problems. For example, they may see links between social and environmental issues, understanding that climate change will most affect people living in poverty. They may connect sex trafficking with girls living in poverty in Cambodia. They may understand the need for breast cancer research because it affected a mother or aunt. These connections begin to fuel an inner purpose and passion toward specific, important causes.

5. Creating a Passionate Civic Identity

Young people reach the last step in this journey when they see themselves as active, engaged citizens. They are able to articulate their beliefs about how they understand a social or environmental issue and they hold a worldview that incorporates themselves as agents of change. They know that small things they do to contribute to social and environmental causes have a big impact. At this point, they are ready and able to make a long-term commitment to public service. They have a passion for giving!

Adult Support: An Essential Ingredient

Habitat for Humanity Volunteers
Habitat for Humanity Volunteers

Each of the young people in my study spoke passionately about the adults who played a supportive role in their route to adopting passionate causes. These adults, often high school educators, helped these young people believe in themselves.

Students reported six main ways adults helped. They 1) supported and encouraged, 2) listened, 3) set high expectations, 4) showed interest in them as individuals separate from academics or civic activities, 5) fostered self-decision making, and 6) provided another perspective during problem-solving.

Understanding the common ways teenagers navigate the challenges of volunteering may help adults mentor teens more effectively.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.

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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.

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