Does Volunteering Foster Narcissistic Kids?

Why community service should give young people more than tee-shirts.

Posted Jul 22, 2014

Youth Volunteerism

As young people donate thousands of service hours this summer, a growing body of research suggests children and teenagers are not getting the types of experiences that teach them to care — to put the common good before their own. These studies should raise concern for parents, educators, and society as a whole.

That is, of course, unless you are a nonprofit fundraiser. 

When Do Something, an organization that claims to engage 2.5 million young people in causes for social change, conducted a survey of why and how American youth volunteer today, they made a fascinating discovery: “Fundraising is the #1 way young people volunteer.” 

In their full report, The DoSomething.Org Index on Young People and Volunteering, they state:  “For charities, young people are a secret weapon – they can do the dirty work of asking adults for donations. A donation pitch from a passionate teen is way more influential than a cold call or that newsletter you were thinking about sending.”   

Admittedly, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as the image of young people as “secret weapons” for fundraisers percolated in my mind. That is not to say that DoSomething.Org and other organizations competing for young people’s time and energy have a sinister plan to thwart kid’s development. In fact, I’m sure they have the noblest of intentions. 

As a developmental psychologist, I work with nonprofits, schools, and communities to foster the internal strengths and abilities that bring meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. How they become caring citizens and take action for social change is a focus of my work and research. 

Has Volunteer Service Become a Mere Requirement for College? 

Most teenagers see volunteer work as just another requirement of growing up. Even Danielle, the daughter of a Mississippi preacher who taught and modeled caring to his children throughout their lives, had a skewed idea of volunteerism in her teens:  “I thought service was a very impersonal experience where you made an arbitrary contribution to the community….You go in, you get a tee-shirt that says ‘volunteer’ and then you move on and put it on your college resume.” 

Few of us would disagree that volunteerism should always be first and foremost about serving others. To be certain, nonprofits must raise funds to provide services for those in need. But youth volunteerism must also be about growing empathy – a key internal motivator to making positive change in the world.  

Sadly, when it comes to developing empathy, research suggests we are failing our children. 

A new study from Harvard University, The Children We Mean To Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values, showed 60 percent of students ranked achievement above caring. “Our youth values appear to be awry,” say the authors, “and the messages that adults are sending may be at the heart of the problem.”   

A key point made in the report: “Any healthy civil society also depends on adults who are committed to their communities and who, at pivotal times, will put the common good before their own. We don’t seem to be preparing large numbers of youth to create this society.” 

Empathy is on the Decline 

There is mounting evidence that the kind of empathy necessary for the health of civil societies is on the decline. A study from the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research found an alarming decrease in the empathy of college students. Findings published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review reported a 48 percent drop in empathetic concern for others and a 34 percent decline in perspective taking, with the largest declines occurring in the past 15 years. 

The recent Harvard study suggested parents and teachers must take responsibility for teaching kids to care. Recommended solutions ranged from creating better “cultures of caring” at school to “walking our talk” as parents. 

But there is a much larger picture, beyond home and school, which may be hiding in plain sight. 

Today’s Culture of Youth Volunteerism 

Could the current culture of youth volunteerism be contributing to decreasing levels of empathy and caring in children and teens? In the quest to raise large sums of money for nonprofit causes, are kids getting the short end of the stick when it comes to their own emotional learning and character development? 

The DoSomething.Org study asked, “What do kids want from volunteering?” The answers included: “Teens want to 1) hang out with friends, 2) connect through mobile technology, and 3) avoid commitment….It’s very much like a high school party: teens often decide to go last minute, avoid showing up early, and almost never stay till the end.” 

As a result of these and other findings, DoSomething.Org provided recommendations for nonprofits that included allowing teens to “come and go as they please,” requiring only “one-time commitments,” and putting them in familiar situations with friends. That way, they would have more fun. 

When did we replace evidence-based research and proven principles of youth development with “what kids want?” When research studies are based on misguided questions, flawed conclusions result. 

Contrary to these recommendations, we know through years of research that young people find meaning and purpose through volunteering when they are given opportunities to be challenged, encouraged to form relationships with people different from themselves, and pushed out of their emotional comfort zones to grapple with today’s moral dilemmas. 

We know that young people gain initiative and problem-solving skills when they work collaboratively over an extended time in activities guided by adult mentors who value and support them.  These long-term service projects give them opportunities to overcome obstacles, learn from failures, and find purpose in serving others. 

Meaning vs. Numbers 

Instead of asking young people what they want from volunteering, we need to more fully understand the transformative potential of youth volunteering. We should ask about the kinds of experiences that bring meaning to their lives. When we get the environment right, kids learn at deep levels. Only then are they driven by their core beliefs and do they become caring citizens and future leaders. 

Are too many youth volunteer activities focused on the “result” at the expense of the “why?” Are we fostering self-centeredness in children when we make volunteering easy and fun instead of meaningful? External rewards, like prizes, parties, and good times, come at a sacrifice to the internal rewards that shape character. When meaning is missing, we not only risk producing future generations of children with declining levels of empathy, we risk the future of civil society itself. 

Fortunately, a few years later, Danielle became one of a small percentage of teens who discovered the “why” behind the “result” of her own volunteering. Through a service project with Heifer International, she found deep meaning that ignited a passion for environmental stewardship. Redefining the way she saw service from “something you did on the side when you had time” to “a lifestyle.” 

Danielle continued with a poignant message: “It makes you live with a sense of urgency to know that even your attitude can have an effect on someone and make them more effective participants in their community.” 

I fantasize about a day when more young people have opportunities like Danielle — when we begin to measure success through meaning rather than through numbers. For that to occur, parents, teachers, and community leaders must give youth the kinds of experiences that transform them from the inside into tomorrow’s caring, compassionate, and engaged citizens. When this happens, they will truly become “secret weapons” for social and environmental change. 


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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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see the reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles. 


Footnote: The link to the full DoSomeThing.Org Study has been removed from the organization’s website. You can either contact them for a copy or one is linked here

Image Credit: M J DeSouza Coelho