In my experience, teens tend to be altruistic. This may sound strange to some, as these same individuals are also self-absorbed and seem to be oblivious to much of what goes on around them, but I stand by my statement. The teens I know care about people. They care about those who are struggling physically, financially and socially. They want to make a difference in the world. I realize that in some cases, community service is mandated, by schools, youth groups and religious affiliations, but I believe that most of these kids would be looking out for others anyway.
The December holidays have a reputation for being about gifts. These holidays have become commercialized, with decorations and ads appearing earlier each year. (I saw Christmas trees up at Halloween!) There has been a trend to minimize the focus on receiving and paring back on the number of gifts we give our children. What if we just started to think differently about the gifts? What if we encouraged acts of kindness this month? Perhaps we can even make kindness a habit all year long.
We should especially encourage inter-generational activities. Teens are in-between; not quite adults and no longer little kids. For this reason, they are uniquely equipped to relate to people of all ages. Put in charge of entertaining or teaching little ones, they can indulge their silly side, and while spending time with seniors, they can be more serious and show off their intellect. There are lots of ways to give this season; here are some ideas to get you started.
Visit a nursing home
This can be done as an individual or as a group. There are many people living in these group homes who do not have family nearby and have few, if any visitors. Spending an hour or so listening, or working together to complete a craft or other activity can provide a happy memory to get them through the month. Another option is to go with a group of friends to sing holiday songs either to or with the residents. Bringing along a handful of simple instruments (tambourines, shakers, small drums) is likely to encourage participation.
Ask an elderly neighbor to join you on a holiday outing
This can be as simple as inviting them to your child’s holiday concert at school. Driving around town looking at the lights and decorations can be a fun tradition for all ages (and a special treat for someone who is unable to leave the house on his or her own). Some people would rather stay home; your teen can help them put up decorations or bake together. (A bonus here would be learning how to make some special treats from secret family recipes.)
Be a Secret Santa
Many people think of this as a gift exchange, but does Santa actually expect gifts? (Well maybe cookies count.) You can bake cookies or put hot cocoa packets in a mug (doesn’t everyone have a dozen or so extra around the house) and deliver them to a neighbor’s door with a cheery note signed from Santa. This is an ideal activity for a teen. After all, who doesn’t like having a secret?
Consider backyard friends
Create edible ornaments for neighborhood wildlife. Peanut butter and birdseed ornaments are popular and simple options (you can find many of these on Pinterest) and can be spread on pinecones or even cardboard cutouts. Organizing younger siblings and/or neighborhood kids in such an activity can also be a way to give parents a short reprieve.
Collect, create and donate
Look into what needs there are in or just outside your community. Local food banks and shelters often count on the increased generosity that usually comes with the holiday season for the bulk of their donations. Find a way to meet some of the specific needs. Your teen can organize a collection of food or clothing or get a group together to create things such as hats, scarves and blankets. Children’s hospitals or pediatric wings of local hospitals may also have ways you can help.
Be a good listener
Holiday stress is a real thing. Sometimes people just need to be listened to. In many cases, our own problems become smaller when we realize others have problems as well, or at least we feel less alone. Hugs can go along with listening (and this is also something I noticed teens are particularly good at: both seeing the need and following through). Allowing them to see you struggling gives them permission to not be perfect as well.
If our teens are going to grow, we need to let them do, not just observe. There may be other needs you haven’t noticed, yet they have. Ask them. You might be surprised and impressed by what they come up with.