How Do We Teach Teens To Care About Others?

posted by on Dec 16, 2017

We may not see our teenager as often or as up-close as we saw the baby or school-age version of our child, but when we do, the physical changes are exciting. We catch glimpses of the soon-to-be-adult we’ve been so curious about all these years.

It is also completely terrifying. The moment they enter high school there is a literal countdown until they are out of our house.

We have to wonder, did we teach them everything we were supposed to? Were we so busy worrying about whether they would ever be able to tie their shoes, make their bed,IMG_9950.jpgor hang up their jacket that we forgot to teach them how to be good people? Did we remember to teach them to think about others before themselves (but not forget their own needs)? Did we make time to show them not just the beauty in the world, but the challenges, too? Did we model our own deep commitment to social justice?  Did we let them know that collectively they have the power—and the responsibility—to fix it?    

Finding time on our teenager’s calendar to cram in all these lessons is tricky enough—even with the promise of a free meal. The reality is they don’t need to hear us talk about the importance of social action. 1. We’ve been telling them for years, from the first tzedakah box we gave them in preschool. 2. They need to just do it, especially if their school-year schedule hasn’t allowed time for much more than collecting canned goods.

Here’s how a summer program can help teens experience the power of tikkun olam (repairing the world):


Immersion and Engagement

Away from daily academic responsibilities, summer is the perfect time for teens to put their energy and hearts into social action. They can go deep on one issue or explore several, giving them a solid take on what it means to help others and truly make an impact.

Variety and Values

Depending on where you live, opportunities for social action may be limited. Often they require parents to participate, which could be another limiting factor. Jewish summer programs like Young Judaea’s Alternative Winter Break or Tel Yehudah’s two-week Alternative Summer Break let teens explore different opportunities and process them with peers against a backdrop of Jewish values.  

Life and Leadership

Many teens hunger for real-life experiences. We can’t exactly throw them out into the world, but we can find programs that guide them into it. At Tel Yehudah’s Hadracha Social Activism Institute, teens create real-world activist campaigns on topics that matter to them. They travel to Washington, D.C. to talk with members of Congress and advocacy organizations, while also getting leadership opportunities and fun activities back at camp.  

So ditch the lesson plan. Like all of us, teens learn by doing. When they participate in summer programs, they get a first-person view of a much bigger world than their own, which helps them see all the ways they can work to help repair it.  In the process of helping others and changing the world, they may just change themselves.