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Parents, special treatment, and practicalities

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

I remember once teaching a class of adult learners in Dublin. We were covering the difference between the verb "to listen" and the verb "to hear". One Brazilian student told me the difference was very easy. In somewhat broken English he explained:

It's like when you were a kid and you were playing PlayStation. Your mother would be telling you about the chores you need to do. You could hear her voice but you were so focused on the game, you weren't listening.

We all came to the conclusion that we really all had the same childhood! Here was a guy from Sao Paolo and he could easily have been from Sligo.

So many times during my voluntary work, I'll see someone do something and I'll say to myself "Man, we really are all the same". I'd tell anyone about to volunteer in a role where you are working directly with beneficiaries to keep this in the forefront of their mind. Here's what I mean.


Tempting as it may be, we should never interfere with the parents’ job, especially when it comes to raising their children. I can't imagine doing it down at my local GAA pitch and it is no different if I'm volunteering in a development context or anywhere else. People are people.

Remember that the relationships between parents and children vary a lot within different cultures, though. Obviously, if you think that something feels off (for example you suspect domestic abuses) talk about it to someone more experienced than you on your team. If there's someone who is competent in that field, then that's your first port of call. No organisation would ever recommend trying to deal with it yourself.


Some volunteers love to work with kids and others run a mile from the thought! I always think that if each type could lend advice to one another, we'd have the perfect guidelines for things like boundaries and attachment.

For example, if, like me, you do enjoy teaching or mentoring kids, you could very naturally find yourself spending excessive time with a child or a group of children. Going the extra mile in this case doesn't necessarily mean you're doing what's best for them.

When you were in primary school did you have a favourite teacher? Someone who you idolised? Maybe someone came to your mind right away. Funny thing is, for some kid somewhere, you could be that person.

You may notice a child asking for more attention in a really subtle way. The crafty buggers will pretend the task is too difficult just to get some special treatment. While of course a sprinkle of this special treatment is fine, if you notice it becoming a trend, it's always a nice workaround to include other children and/or volunteers in the treatment. You'll find that having another student help out a peer who's seeking your special attention deters that student from asking again.


Teaching teens is definitely among the most rewarding voluntary experience. If you have seen a grumpy teen take pride in an arts and crafts project, you have felt pure fulfillment as an activity leader. Honestly. Kids, while exhausting, can be an easy win sometimes. Teens are never easy. Never easy and always weird.

I have to remind myself that all teenagers, regardless of context or culture, are probably going through a very delicate period in their lives.

When volunteering and interacting with teens, do try to avoid any ambiguous (flirty) situations. It seems so obvious and straight-forward but if you're like me, you might have trouble remembering how wrong a teenager can interpret something. No panic, it's the job of your volunteer leader to bring this to the front of your mind.

Hope this helps do just that.

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