816 Opinion

April 1, 2014

Sherry Kuehl | Tallying up your service hours is the opposite of what ‘giving back’ is all about

Community service from elementary to high school is, in some cases, a cutthroat competition.

As a parent you scribble your name on a lot of stuff — everything from reading logs to band practice sheets.

But one thing I won’t sign my name to is anything that has to do with volunteering or community service. I won’t sign a piece of a paper, a diary, a journal, a ledger. If it tracks and tallies up how many hours my kids spent doing “service,” I’m not interested.

It’s not because I don’t fully believe in giving back and I’m certainly not anti nonprofit — my husband works for one. What I’m against is teaching our children that the act of being a decent human being is something you need to diligently record and be rewarded for.

This is the time of year when the schools are sending reminders that your child’s community service logs will be due soon and to mark your calendar for the May award ceremony in the cafeteria. Now, I know the whole idea of encouraging kids to keep an account of their volunteer hours in an effort to educate them on the importance of giving back is not a bad idea.

It’s just flawed because I believe we are teaching them the exact opposite. We, in our trophy-happy, grabby-gifty, look-at-me world, are making a competition out of something that should be expected to be a functioning member of society. There should be no rewards for that, no shout-outs, no social media selfies. It should be muscle memory — something you just do.

Community service from elementary to high school is, in some cases, a cutthroat competition. Gone are the days when families, Scout groups and religious organizations would quietly and without fanfare do volunteer work because, quite simply, it feels good.

Now, it’s all about writing down every nanosecond you spend doing something for someone else because being a respectable carbon life form isn’t its own reward. Parents want their kids a have a chance to win a prize for it and what parents will do for their kids to win that prize is probably the exact opposite of what “giving back” is all about.

There are the kids who log time for visiting their grandparents, in the Ozarks, at their lake house. Did you know putting your neighbors’ newspaper on their porch also counts as a community service? Or at least kids log it as “neighborhood volunteering.”

The best are the birthday parties where a child and 12 of their closest friends go to a nonprofit to spend time volunteering. The mom includes on the invitation, right next to the RSVP, how many hours each child will get to write down on their service log sheet. There are oodles of pictures Instagrammed and Facebooked from the mom about being “So proud of my daughter. This is how she chose to spend her birthday.” The kicker: The kids take a limo to the nonprofit and then scurry out to have the “real party” at the American Girl doll store.

This competitive service mania has even evolved into an business. As your kid gets older there are “college coaches” who will, for a fee, tell you how to massage your child’s “volunteer commitment” so it looks good on college applications.

Currently, starting a nonprofit is the “must have” for all students applying to highly selective colleges who wish to “set themselves apart from the regular volunteer majority.” All you need is a website. My son said he was going to start a nonprofit called mymotherisannoying.org. His service hours would be listening to me complain and let me tell you he’d have a lot of hours to write down.

Please don’t send me emails with your child’s arduous community service listed, with a link to their very own nonprofit site, blog and “I Give Back” Powerpoint. I know that many, many kids take these hours very seriously. Awesome and bravo. But I also have experienced volunteering at nonprofits and sighing when a group of high school kids comes in to “get their hours” and they barely can go through the motions to help out.

Is this what we want to teach our kids — that picking up a neighbor’s paper and kind of, sort moving around some boxes at a nonprofit is what volunteering is all about? That it doesn’t matter if you really did anything as long as you showed up? And that any good deed over 30 minutes can be rounded up to an hour?

Nope, count me out on this. I’m not signing my name to that. Ever.

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