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Are your kids' minds wasting away during the summer? Motivate them to work or volunteer so they can continuing learning while on vacation.
updated 7/30/2010 3:19:41 PM ET 2010-07-30T19:19:41

What's that lump on the sofa?

Uh-oh. It's a teenager with no summer plans — unless you count playing Wii and texting.

Time to help that kid get a life. Never mind that summer's well under way, and all the other kids had jobs, internships, camps and classes lined up long ago.

Here are some ways teens with nothing to do can use the rest of the season constructively, along with tips for parents to help get them off that couch:

Motivation
Sure, teens may need a little down time, especially if they're busy during the school year. But Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist with The Methodist Hospital in Houston, said "it's not good for kids to do nothing in the summer," she said. "We know for a fact that kids who lie around all day, often times their self-esteem goes down; they get into more trouble; they feel disengaged from families. They get lonely in the summer, and they need attention."

They're at higher risk for teen pregnancy, Rapini said. "They're texting, they're sexting, they have access to all kinds of Web sites. Whenever kids don't have a routine, their lives get chaotic."

If your teen is resistant or lacks initiative, Rapini said the first step for parents is simply "sitting and talking." What is your teen interested in? What is he or she good at? Identify people, businesses or organizations they might contact about a job or volunteering.

Next, parents should help teens practice a pitch they can make that sums up their skills and what they're looking for. Then set a goal for the teen: "I want you to make three calls today. I want to know after each one you call how it went, and I'll cross it off the list."

"You can inspire a kid by presenting a task to solve and saying, 'We've got to work on this. This is our goal,'" Rapini said.

Even if the calls don't lead to a gig, at least the teen made an effort and practiced job-searching skills.

Networking
Teach teens to network by helping create lists of neighbors, friends and relatives. Go through family address books or e-mail lists. Consider the day care center or day camp they attended when they were young, houses of worship or nearby parks. Can they volunteer at an animal shelter or as a reader in a senior center? Are there stores they patronize that might let them help out?

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"Or they can call the family veterinarian and say, 'Hey, you're the vet for Fluffy. Can I do some assistant work with you for free this summer?'" said Deena Maerowitz, a college admissions consultant in New York City and Connecticut.

Help your teen come up with a follow-up pitch when the answer is no, Maerowitz said. Does the person they're calling know of other places they might call? Would it be OK to put a sign on the office bulletin board offering pet-sitting?

Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurial teens should be encouraged to "try their hand at their own business," whether baby-sitting, tutoring, lawn-mowing or dog-walking, said Caroline Ceniza-Levine of Six-Figure Start, a career-coaching firm specializing in students and young professionals.

Help your teen think about marketing: "How are people going to find out about them? Are they going to do flyers? Are they going to put up a Web site? How much would they charge for their service? How much do other people charge?" Ceniza-Levine said.

She stressed that the process can be productive even if it doesn't lead to earning money. A teen interested in animals or sports might set up a blog or Web site on the subject. A teen who dreams of a specialized career might find a professional to shadow for a day. Another good use of time: Learning QuickBooks, PowerPoint or other computer skills.

Volunteering
Finding volunteer gigs can be challenging. "Nonprofits are busier than ever, but often they aren't equipped to take in people off the streets," said Robert Rosenthal, spokesman for VolunteerMatch, based in San Francisco.

Fortunately the VolunteerMatch.org Web site offers thousands of prescreened opportunities, from one-day gigs helping out at a festival to long-term internships in the arts. To find local opportunities for teens, go to http://www.volunteermatch.org and click on "Advanced Search" in the green area. Fill in your location, and in the "Great For..." box at the bottom, check "Teens."

One organization that lists opportunities on the site is Reading Partners, which provides one-on-one tutors in California elementary schools. A third of the group's 900 volunteers are high school and college students, including Nalini Jain, 16, who organized a summer Reading Partners program at a Mountain View elementary school where most of the children are Hispanic.

Nalini recruited other teens to help. "A lot of kids were looking for things to do," she said. "Three of my friends jumped at the opportunity."

Online job searches
We've all heard about Internet job scams and horror stories. But there are ways teens can stay safe while looking for work online.

Henry Randall, 19, a student at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., had just a few weeks to work at home in New York between other commitments this summer. He posted an ad on Craigslist, but he proceeded very carefully.

"I didn't put up any personal information — just my first name," he said. "No address, no phone number." He didn't need to include his e-mail; Craigslist forwards all ad responses without revealing your e-mail address.

Henry got an offer to work in a medical office cleaning out old paper records, but before he called, he did some research. "First I went on the office's Web site to check it out, then I checked out the location, to see what kind of neighborhood I'd be going to," he said. "It seemed like a legitimate job."

He went in for an interview, got the $10-an-hour job, and was invited back to work there any time he's home from school. "I was skeptical," he said, "but it worked out really well."

Think small
For teens who are reluctant to make cold calls or take the initiative, "try to think small," said Maerowitz. "If your kid is resisting getting a full-time job or an internship, think of shorter-term projects."

Just don't let them spend the entire summer on the sofa. "I can tell you as a college admissions consultant, it's important for colleges to see kids have done something for the summer," she said. "It doesn't necessarily mean working from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, or creating a nonprofit that saves the world. It's not the time commitment so much as the 'Aha' — learning something about yourself."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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