This article was translated from Hebrew to English by Daphna – Thank you!
Injured – how so?
It seems that we have never been so conscious and aware of the unpleasant, worrying and problematic revelations regarding our youth. The world of science and literature, the media, the school system and parents are all deeply engaged in the study and definition of egocentricity, hedonism, materialism, raising violence and apathy as the characteristics of modern-day adolescents.
In this drift of voices, images and impressions of a harsh reality swooping down from every direction, the positive and humane behaviors of the youth are almost entirely disregarded by our consciousness.
Very little is known to us from literature about adolescents that are interested in social issues, young people who are troubled by questions of morals and values, willing to lend a hand and volunteer "no strings attached". Too little is known about teenagers volunteering for hard, complicated work while trying to bring joy and happiness to the homes and hearts of the lonely elderly, devoting themselves to strengthening and encouraging disabled children or striving to promote and improve the quality of the environment.
In other words, the finest hour of these teenagers is almost completely hidden from our sight. Is it because this "hour" is so rare, a marginal phenomenon? Alternatively, is it because our eyes, which are focused on the hardship and lacking, are pointed onwards?
It is true that as teachers, parents and caretakers we are often confronted, bewildered, with contradicting wishes and messages teenagers send out at once. On the one hand- the desire to be left alone and not be bothered, on the other hand, the need to be with others, to belong. The pushing away of authority and dependency, the need for independence, the will to be the sole decision maker, and the same time, the strong need for recognition, for being noticed noticing and listened to. An elevated mood turns into depression in a heartbeat, obliviousness and apathy are suddenly replaced by enthusiasm and a will to act and contribute, one moment there is anger and lashing out, and then suddenly there is affection, tenderness and caring for others.
It seems that we already know that this agonizing pendulum movement is of extreme importance in terms of development, since through it teenagers reveal their wishes and become aware of their desires, their strengths and their weaknesses. Although, vis-à-vis this delirium of the "Youth of the thousand faces" as recently described in the headline of a newspaper article, many of us stand not only embarrassed but helpless and withdrawn. Why should we intervene when we will only cause rejection, when our words are not noticed or heeded? Unfortunately, these hesitations and reservations leave an increasing number of teenagers in distress, without a guiding hand and the presence of a loving and supporting adult. Therefore, the question repeats itself: who are the teenagers and what do they really want?
Social solidarity and personal happiness – indeed contrasts?
Studies conducted among teenagers of different cultures, during the course of almost two decades, examined the alleged contradiction between the teenagers' desire for personal satisfaction and their willingness to act for the benefit of others. The following question was examined: are teenagers able to take on social obligations, devote themselves to and make sacrifices for the benefit of others? In addition, if so, to what extent? What is the frequency of these phenomenons, what is their meaning for the youth and how can this behavior be encouraged and nourished? (Magen, 1998)
From the analysis of a study, which involved more than 2,500 subjects it, has been discovered that beyond the cultural differences, some characteristics that may be defined as universal were discovered: more than a third of the subjects expressed egocentric and hedonistic wishes, with no consideration for other people. On the other hand, about a third of the subjects of different cultures expressed an explicit will and even yearning to act for the benefit of others, to serve the country, to contribute time and effort to help people in need and to act for the benefit and the happiness of their peers. Moreover, all of the groups in all the studies showed that the teenagers, who expressed the will to help, volunteer and contribute were the ones to report personal experiences of joy, happiness and alleviation. In other words: it seems that the search for personal happiness does not necessarily come at the expense of “un-personal” obligations, and alternately, the will to act and volunteer for the benefit and well-being of others does not come at the expense of self-investment.
Various surveys conducted in Israel regarding the phenomenon of teenage volunteering show that 23% of the teenagers are involved in ongoing volunteer work in the community. They assist in hospitals, tutor children, accompany lonely elderly people, assist autistic children, take an active part in preservation of the environment, and are overall involved in the variety of volunteer work that is empowering for individuals and groups in any society. Regarding all of those social goals, it has been discovered that 36% of the subjects of all the studies in all the different cultures expressed an explicit will to engage in these activities when asked indirectly.
It should be mentioned that although this kind of findings may be received with a certain sigh of relief, their deep and obligating meaning lies in the assumption that the strengthening of the characteristics and elements defining them as humans – compassion, generosity, devotion, responsibility – is enough to reduce the phenomenon of evil, viciousness, inconsiderateness and lack of sensitivity. Therefore, opposed to the repetitive unsuccessful attempts to face the violence and alienation among the youth, the findings portrayed above are pointing the spotlight, in a way, towards an entirely different direction, namely: the nurturing and strengthening of excellence.
Indeed, teenagers have a need for excitement and stepping out of their routine, as well as the need for strengthening their ego and self-esteem. These needs can be answered and expressed – away from the “solution” of antagonism – by participating in challenging, transforming and meaningful activity, which is meant for the benefit of others but often brings with it experiences of excitement, joy and self-esteem to the teenagers. “To hear the joy of the people and to see the smile on their faces because of something you managed to do is very rewarding. It’s not a huge thing but it makes you feel good about yourself”.
This personal testimony of a volunteer student is strengthened by the findings of studies showing that among teenagers who participate in pro-social volunteer activities the rate of violence is lower, as is the risk that they will get addicted to drugs and alcohol. In addition, they are less involved than others in criminal activity, and display a higher rate of emotional strength.
Moreover, these young volunteers experience moments of happiness in higher velocities and experience the world as a good place to live in.
It should be mentioned that during the last decade evidence has cumulated regarding the importance of volunteering activity also among youth, which is at risk (for example in Youniss et al., 2002)
The choice and obligation to do something for the benefit of others is the expression of ability vis-א-vis needing, an ability which contributes to the self-esteem of the volunteer. Moreover, it has been proven that when the volunteer work is performed as part of a group, an element of group-empowerment is added, and high-risk youth are rewarded and empowered by this activity.
Appropriate ways of engaging youth
Volunteer activity in schools, involving both the teachers and the students, or organizing entire classrooms for the purpose of volunteering in the community – under skilled and appropriate guidance, while being closely monitored, supported, encouraged and feed-backed – may allow a significant experience that gives the young volunteers an opportunity to show initiative, responsibility and independence, as well as experience a sense of self-worth and belonging, while at the same time this kind of activity increases the sense of solidarity and inserts humanitarian values into the school environment.
Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of complicatedness that accompanies the process of giving. While we train the youth for a relationship of giving and receiving, when they are the giving party one must make sure that, it does not develop into a relationship that is based on one side’s strength and the other side’s weakness. Of high importance is the development of mutual generosity relations, meaning: building relationships that are based on reciprocation and allow[s] mutual growth of the giving party and the receiving party. Hence the extreme importance of the process of training those who are responsible for engaging youth.
Volunteering with the accompaniment of a skilled adult puts a mirror in front of the teenager, a mirror that shows the teenager his abilities and weakness, his ways of coping with different situations of hardships and dilemmas, but also irreplaceable experiences of giving [that are irreplaceable]: “The holocaust survivor that we are visiting is more to us than we do for her”.
Magen,Z.(1998) Exploring Adolescent happiness: Commitment, Purpose and Fulfillment.Sage Publications London:
Sherrod,L., Flanagan,C. & Youniss J (2002) Dimentions of Citizenship and opportunities for youth development. What, why, when, where and who of citizenship development. Applied Developmental Science, 6(4) : 264-272
Youniss,j. Bales, s & Christmas- Best,v. (2002) Youth civic engagement in the twenty-first century.