Teens who help strangers are bet­ter off down the road

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For some, help­ing fam­ily and friends is a nat­u­ral part of life. Help­ing strangers is harder. It re­quires a sac­ri­fice of time and en­ergy for peo­ple you likely won’t see again.

But the sac­ri­fice is worth it over time - for teenagers, at least.

A new study in the jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment found that teenagers who help strangers are less likely to par­tic­i­pate in delin­quent be­hav­iors and show ag­gres­sion three years later.

“If we en­cour­age our kids to help peo­ple, es­pe­cially when they’re vol­un­teer­ing or help­ing peo­ple they don’t know, then we’re help­ing them have a bet­ter fu­ture,” said study lead au­thor Laura Padilla-Walker., who works as an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in Brigham Young Univer­sity’s School of Fam­ily Life

The study found that con­text mat­ters. Pro-so­cial be­hav­ior isn’t al­ways a good thing for the per­son do­ing the help­ing. The re­searchers com­pared the re­sults of help­ing strangers vs. fam­ily mem­bers and friends, and found that help­ing nei­ther fam­ily nor friends proved to be as di­rectly ben­e­fi­cial as help­ing strangers.

Padilla-Walker also em­pha­sized that the help­ing must be vol­un­tary to have pro­tec­tive ef­fects, and that high-cost be­hav­iors — things that re­quire more from you — are gen­er­ally more pro­tec­tive.

“Open­ing a door for a stranger isn’t as ef­fec­tive as serv­ing some­one in a mean­ing­ful way over time,” Padilla-Walker said.

Al­though the study ap­plied specif­i­cally to teenagers, Padilla-Walker added that par­ents can sup­port habits of ser­vice by in­volv­ing the whole fam­ily.

“It’s not go­ing to work if par­ents are sit­ting on the couch just say­ing, ‘You guys go do good things,’” Padilla-Walker said. “Be a fam­ily that serves and help your kids see that they’re making a dif­fer­ence.”

One of the best ways par­ents can help their teenagers get the ben­e­fits is to be cre­ative in how they help — find ser­vice op­por­tu­ni­ties that fit their spe­cific in­ter­ests and hob­bies. If they’re do­ing some­thing they al­ready love, help­ing strangers will be a habit, not a chore.

“The whole trick is get­ting matched to your pas­sions,” Padilla- Walker said. “Help your child tai­lor ser­vice to their in­ter­ests and sup­port their causes. If they really love to read, help them serve at a li­brary. Or if they love play­ing with kids, help them serve kids with spe­cial needs.”

When ado­les­cents can see the pos­i­tive ef­fects of their serv­ing, out­comes are the most ben­e­fi­cial.

“When you really feel like you’re making a dif­fer­ence it can change your be­hav­iors, your at­ti­tudes and ul­ti­mately your pos­i­tive out­comes,” Padilla-Walker said. “Even more sur­pris­ingly, th­ese help­ing be­hav­iors also pro­tect against get­ting in­volved in delin­quency, which is an added ben­e­fit.”

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