Care and Feeding

My Kid Doesn’t Want to Volunteer. Is She Hopelessly Selfish?

Should service work be optional, or mandatory?

Photo illustration: A young girl stands, arms crossed over her midsection, with a frustrated expression on her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My family is involved in a certain amount of charity and volunteer work—both locally (visiting the elderly, making food for people suffering from illness) and on a larger scale (charity projects, attending rallies). I’ve never forced my children to participate, but I make sure they know what I’m doing and why, and I encourage and praise them when they decide to get involved.

Two of my children have responded well and participate reasonably often. My 9-year-old, however—the middle child—is never interested in any of it. She will often express interest and sympathy when I explain the need we’re trying to meet, but her calculation of whether to come along or help is based entirely on “Will this be fun?” (Usually: not as much as staying home and reading a book.)

Part of me thinks this is normal and the important thing is just to keep modeling the behavior without any pressure. (I mean, when I was 9 years old, I would have done pretty much anything rather than visit the elderly.) But the difference between her and my other children makes me wonder if she’s more selfish than the norm. I also worry that the discrepancy between her and her siblings will make her perceive herself as someone who’s selfish, even if she’s actually just a normal 9-year-old.

What do you think? Is this normal behavior, or a sign of selfishness that we need to address? Would it be beneficial for me to start insisting that she participate in some sort of charity and volunteer work? Or is there another approach I can take that I haven’t thought of yet?

—What’s Normal for 9?

Dear WNF9,

I’ve been on all sides of the volunteer game. I’ve volunteered, I’ve personally received help from volunteers as a client of social services agencies, and I’ve volunteered others as an employee charged with finding and coordinating volunteers for various projects of goodwill. One aspect of these transactions that has always struck me as odd is that fact that volunteering is, by default, treated as entirely optional. We don’t treat income-earning projects like this. Going to work is mandatory; going to help is optional.

At surface there are good reasons for this. Volunteering doesn’t pay the rent, etc. But then we do other non–income earning things all the time. Everything from going to yoga to taking out the trash. These are all volunteer activities, just not ones that benefit others. Following that logic through, we find that the underlying belief is that doing what we want or need for ourselves is more important and more urgent than helping our society as a whole. In other words, we prioritize the individual over the collective. Needless to say, when we do this on a massive scale—let’s say, nationwide—it results in a society that is a zillion times more effective at doing what makes money than it is at doing what brings about peace or caring or love. In fact, that’s kind of the way the entire system is built. As an example, please see, you know, the entire reality of 2018.

You most likely would not write asking, “My 9-year-old doesn’t like brushing her teeth, should I insist?” or “My 9-year-old doesn’t like doing homework, should I insist?” You do not view these things as optional, even though you recognize that a 9-year-old might rather not swallow toothpaste or read about the stupid War of 1812 or whatever. So why is volunteering different?

The fact that your middle child is not that pumped to volunteer is not abnormal. (It’s probably weirder that your other two are so into it, what’s up with that?) But whether or not she “likes” it could not possibly be more beside the point. Often we are pitched the idea that we should do service work because it “feels good”—a notion I take issue with. We should do it because we recognize that we are a part of a society from which we enjoy benefits. We have lucked into many of those benefits, and we continue to enjoy them because there are systems in place to make sure we remain the beneficiaries of these systems. And so we do work in order to help other people who haven’t been so undeservingly fortunate. We do it as part of our rent for being on this earth and soaking up its resources; we do it because we recognize that a society where people do not help one another is a society where no one is ever safe or at peace. I suspect we’d all benefit if “volunteering” were treated as much closer to a requirement rather than optional.

Make it mandatory for your daughter to go at least once a month. She may, indeed, be more selfish than the average person, who knows? But even if she is, that’s fine. Selfishness is not an unmanageable condition. It can be either encouraged and grown, or discouraged and limited. If she is selfish, she doesn’t have to be that way forever. In fact, it is your job is to make sure she isn’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a question about my elderly father. My parents divorced when I was 9. I was resentful and dismissive toward him until my early 20s, when I decided I’d rather have some relationship with him than no relationship. I know he loves me dearly in his own way. He is not a bad or malicious person and is basically harmless. He is, sadly, a functional alcoholic. He is now in very poor health and has been told he probably won’t be around much longer. He lives in Oregon and we live in Southern California.

The last time I saw him was on my wedding day, four years ago. I now have a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old that he has never met. This is the last chance I probably will have to spend time with him. My husband thinks I should go up to Oregon to see him by myself, which doesn’t really work as I am nursing and can’t use a breast pump. I’d much rather have him come down here for a few weeks so that he can get to know his grandkids and spend some time in our home, which is beautiful and serene and would be convalescent for him. He lives in a motel—not a great place for visiting—and I would love for him to be able to spend some time in a nicer setting, even if only for a little while.

While my husband hasn’t flat-out said no, I know he is uncomfortable with the idea. He doesn’t really like visitors to begin with and isn’t a big fan of my dad, understandably. Should I push to have him stay for a few weeks? Or should I respect my husband’s misgivings and spend a few depressing days visiting my dad in a motel room? There are wonderful qualities about my father that I want my toddler to experience while he’s still around, and I really want to give Dad the gift of a vacation of sorts. I am sure that he is still drinking, despite doctor’s orders not to, but I’ve been speaking to him weekly and am fairly confident he has slowed way down, and I would never allow him to drink to excess around the kids.

Am I wearing rose-colored glasses thinking that this would be a good idea? I know my heart is in the right place, but am I setting us up for a shitshow?

—Unsure in Burbank

Dear UiB,

This is a very difficult time. It is a staggering task to find perfect resolution to an entire lifetime’s worth of relationship history even as the clock ticks down. And to do all this while also attending to your own family, partnership, children is just overwhelming. I’m saying that to remind you that if you are having a hard time, it’s not because you’re not doing it right. It’s because it’s hard.

It has been my experience that when you have a dying parent, many people will offer you advice about how to handle things. This advice will be well-meaning, based entirely on their own histories, and almost comically unable to take the specifics of your story into account. It is one of the few situations in life in which I encourage people to prioritize their own instincts, even when it conflicts with the well-meaning input of others. You would like to have your father come to your home. So you should see if you can make that happen. You would like your father to spend time with your children, so you should see if you can make that happen. The only reservations I hear in your letter are that a) your husband may not like it, and b) it might not go as well as you want.

With all due respect to your partner, his opinion has to take second place here. He’s welcome to it, but hopefully he knows better than to insist that his wife deal with her dying father according to his wishes. And yeah, it may not go precisely as you envision. Maybe your dad will be cranky or irritable; maybe he won’t have a good time. But maybe he’ll love seeing that his daughter is healthy and happy in a serene and wonderful place. We cannot predict the future, we can only do what we think is best.

Ask your father if he is willing to come down, and let him know that if he is you’d be thrilled to have him. Let your husband know that you’d appreciate him doing his best to be supportive of you in this difficult time. Maybe it will be a shitshow, and maybe it will be a dream. Most likely it will be a little bit of both. But either way you get to do what you think is right.

Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram are all (perhaps) necessary evils. Today my 12-year-old was invited to a pool birthday party that was washed out due to thunderstorms. Later in the day he was moping and withdrawn, and when confronted he said he saw on Snapchat that some smaller group of kids was invited to the birthday boy’s home for what appears to be an impromptu make-up event. He’s quite upset that he didn’t make the cut. Telling him it was probably last-minute, and that likely no offense was meant, was met with a blank stare and a shrug.

Any advice on how to approach a child who is popular enough but doesn’t always get invited to the hot birthday party? Separately, should I go back in time and strangle social media in the crib?

—Not Popular Enough

Dear NPE,

There are plenty of horrifying problems specific to social media but finding out you were not invited to a party is not one of them. That, I’m afraid, is a story as old as parties themselves. Back in my day I had to find out I wasn’t invited to a party the old-fashioned way: hearing people talk about what an awesome time they had without me.

It does suck, and I understand the pain your son is feeling but this, in and of itself, is not a problem that needs fixing. Your son cannot be invited to every single party, and he cannot reasonably expect to be at the center of every inner circle. Maybe the kids didn’t invite him because, as you say, it was last-minute. Maybe they didn’t invite him because they consider him more of an acquaintance than a close friend. Maybe they don’t like him. But none of that matters because, as you say in your letter, he’s popular enough. I presume this to mean that he has his own friends and can host his own pool parties, Nerf water-gun fights, movie nights, and sleepovers, to all of which he will surely not invite every single kid he knows. That should really be the end of the story.

Tell your son that you understand that it’s hard to feel left out. Maybe even share a story or two about your own awkward and painful social experiences. But most importantly, let him know that his not being invited to the smaller make-up function does not mean anything significant about who he is, or what his worth is. He may not hear the message right away, but stay on it. Parenting is a long game, not a short one. Then take him and a bunch of his friends swimming and have a great time.