The volunteer gene is facing extinction
“What about the children starving in Africa?”
I’d get that a lot when growing up if I didn’t finish the food on offer. I suppose I am not alone in that memory. But, like the food itself, it was a throwaway line.
For my generation, who have since become parents themselves, was it an effective call to act? While over-ordering takeaway, because we are consumed by watching Masterchef - a show that taunts and rejects food - the same day that 25,000 children die from poverty-related causes - I think not.
And so we have generational apathy.
We are implored, daily, to focus on the family, put family first, have family values, and encouraged to think of ourselves as “working families” and “struggling families”. At the expense of the rest of the world.
In the race to perfect the family, parents have become confused about what is ‘best for their child’. And what is decent. But it seems the more we focus only on the family, happiness eludes us.
We work ridiculous hours to ‘afford’ holidays and ‘stuff’. And so the only thing we aren’t giving them is time. We sign them up for extra-curricular lessons, followed by more lessons. And so their day is crowded with focusing on their own achievement. We concentrate on filling their bodies with organic, locally grown food. And in doing so, unknowingly, starve another child of their livelihood in some far away place. We use generic buzz phrases like “building resilience”. And so dismiss the resilience necessary to survive hunger, violence and disease preventable only according to birthplace.
Although we know the environment is straining under consumption, last year among the most popular gifts we bought children for Christmas were Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, iPods, Nintendo DS and Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House, replete with 75 accessories. And they have never been so unhappy.
Is it really because they are ungrateful? Or perhaps they just sense there is more to life.
Instead of writing their passion off as youthful idealism or naivety, parents are in a powerful position to encourage children and groom their generosity and altruism. But first we have to model this.
Thinking outside the family is a good start.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) the voluntary work undertaken by parents is likely to be related to their child’s education and extracurricular activities. School working bees or helping out at sporting events and so on. And the actual number of minutes spent volunteering (including formal and informal volunteering) declined to 0.19 minutes per day according to 2006 research.
That’s not much time spent doing something for nothing. And what about helping with no traceable benefit to ourselves?
According to Volunteering Australia the main barriers to families volunteering are financial costs and lack of time.
And we need to find some relevance to ourselves. Like the way we scan an article for someone’s age before reading on - to benchmark our successes at the same age or calculate how many years left to get there. A New Scientist article this week talks about “competitive altruism”: people become more generous when their donations are made public and they can achieve status. It also talks about resorting to tricking people into climate-friendly behaviour. Like playing on diet fears to steer people away from foods like cheeseburgers - one of the most climate-unfriendly meals around. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the best motivator.
This brings us to sacrifice.
One dictionary defines ‘sacrifice’ as “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim”.
Does that mean taking a fraction of what is left over (time or money) after the mortgage, schools, holiday, co-curricular activities are taken care of and the pool fund topped up? It seems as though our comfortable lifestyles are sanctioned before we can turn our minds to giving. I fail to see which prized part we are surrendering.
Our children are growing up in the Information Age, so the ignorance defence won’t do. Realms of suffering can be accessed by their fingertips. Will they respect us for designer bedrooms and all the stuff against that backdrop? Possibly, which means the apathy survives.
A few years ago in America, having nowhere to go for Christmas day, we volunteered at a homeless shelter. The children moved easily among tables, talking and listening, because they are unaware of ‘station in life’. I focused on preparing food. No presents, no comparing presents and no material disappointment. I am not professing it was the best Christmas ever, but it is the one we think of and talk about most.
The ‘volunteer gene’ is facing extinction. This phrase is used to describe the correlation between a family’s history of helping outside the home and the likelihood of those children becoming generous, giving adults.
But the irony is that true altruism is what helps us most.
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