Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference

Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is a speaker, consultant, advocate, and the author of Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference. We caught up with her recently to ask some questions—about her book and her writing process—and here’s what she had to say:

1. Tell us the origin story of your book, especially as it’s a sequel (of sorts).

My first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, came out in April 2019 and was featured here on Motherwell Books. It was written specifically for families with young children, up to age 10 or 12, and it included lots of ideas for parents to incorporate service and giving into busy lives while their children are little. I strongly believe that one of the most effective tools we can use to raise grateful, grounded, empathetic kids is to engage with them in acts of kindness throughout their lives. They should understand instinctively that this is simply the way our family operates in the world—seeing, understanding and feeling empathy for the needs of others, and trying to help if we can.

As soon as that book came out (in fact, the very same day while I was enjoying champagne at my launch party), people started asking me for a teen version of the book! I had teenagers myself, so I understood the request. It’s so important to lay the foundation of this work when kids are young, but it might be even more important to empower adolescents and teenagers to keep their eyes open to the injustices in the world, to help them identify the skills, gifts and talents they can share, and to encourage them to find tangible ways they can make an impact. This work is critically important as teens grow into kind, compassionate, open-minded adults—the ones we hope will lead us all into a better future.

2. The past few years have been very difficult, emotionally and culturally. Do we need a call for service and a kinder, gentler world more than ever? 

Absolutely. In fact, I’d say a call for service and kindness, which includes acceptance, inclusion, mindfulness, a recognition of our shared humanity—these may be the only things that can get us out of the mess we’re in at the moment. I remember when I was writing the proposal for the first book four years ago, one of my “selling points” was that messages in the media and politics were so unkind and negative and children were being bombarded by all of it. I wanted my book to be a counterpoint, a call to action to turn the tide. I wanted to remind us that we are more similar than we are different, and that every person and every family can make a positive impact on the world in small but meaningful ways. Sadly, the world is even a little darker today than it was, and we are emerging from a devastating global pandemic. We are in the midst of a teen mental health crisis that began before the pandemic but has only accelerated during the two years of social isolation, disappointment and loss. Research has definitively proven that serving others, volunteering, being kind and grateful enhance our mental, emotional and physical well-being. Teens who volunteer are happier, more confident, less lonely, they do better in school and engage in fewer risky behaviors. The “helpers high” is real, and it can help to pull our teens (and all of us) out of this spiral of depression, anxiety, loneliness and despair. And while helping ourselves feel better, we are improving the lives of others and strengthening our communities. That feels like a win-win.

3. Was there anything you ended up including in the book that surprised you/you didn’t expect?

While the first book was written for parents and caregivers, this book is written specifically for teens, so I really needed to balance the message with the right tone, and include topics that would hook teens and get them to buy in. The last thing I wanted was to sound preachy or nagging—teens probably feel they get enough of that from parents and educators! So, I included topics that I think teens might be curious about but simply don’t have a lot of exposure to, like social entrepreneurship, fundraising, finding an internship in the nonprofit sector or applying for a grant to do good work in the community. I also decided to meet the “social media” issue head-on. I think most parents feel that kids are too attached to their devices, and that social media is one of the problems here, not a solution. But I make a case for using social media for good. I encourage teens to find and amplify positive, hopeful and helpful messages on social media, and to follow, tag, share, and promote fundraising activities, nonprofits and other youth who are making a difference.

4. The focus here is teens, who are notoriously (albeit stereotypically) busy and self-centered! What’s your best advice for motivating/inspiring this particular age group? 

That’s why the name of the book is The BUSY Teen’s Guide. I totally get it. I don’t want this to be yet another item on a lengthy and overwhelming checklist of tasks and responsibilities. The subtitle of the Introduction is “How can I change the world if I have homework and basketball practice every day?” And my answer to that question is simple: you probably can’t! I think there is a lot of pressure on young people to become change-makers, and it can be overwhelming. I want to turn down the volume on that pressure by breaking it down into small, manageable steps. They don’t need to change the whole world to make a difference, and one tiny act of kindness can have a massive ripple effect. I make the case that this work is important and worthwhile, and will absolutely improve their lives if they stay open to it. I also remind them that doing this work will give them life experiences, stories and valuable perspective that they can use when writing college essays and while applying for jobs and internships.

The beginning of the book helps teens to think about the issues and problems they observe in the world around them. What makes them sad and angry? What do they think is unfair? Then they can do a self-assessment about their gifts, talents, passions, hobbies and strengths. I remind them that I’m not talking about being a concert pianist or an Olympic athletic. Everyone has gifts, even if they think they don’t, and they should be encouraged to identify and be proud of those. I want teens to use what they have, and what they are good at, and then figure out how to apply those things to making an impact in some small way in their community. I provide information, tips and resources in a very straightforward way with lists and links and suggestions for further inquiry. I want their own curiosity to motivate them. And most importantly, I remind them that they can actually have fun doing this work, if they find something they really enjoy and they bring like-minded friends along to do it with them. 

5. What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing the book? 

I started writing the book on March 1st, 2020 and it was due the first of June. The pandemic hit just a few days into my writing process and, of course, the world turned upside down. If I’m being honest, I started to lose my motivation for the process, and in feeling sorry for myself and terrified for my family, I began to wonder if the work even mattered. But, something amazing started to happen as we moved through those awful early days: as Mr. Rogers said, I started to look for the helpers and I decided to become one. I watched my own teens as they baked cookies for first responders, and made blankets for rescue animals. We ordered pizza for ER staff at the hospital and supported fundraisers. I realized that this book, and the work of spreading this message, was more even more important now. Writing it gave me a reason to get out of bed each morning, it gave me a burst of optimism and it allowed me to model grit and resilience for my family. 

6. The book is beautifully illustrated and visually organized in such an effective way. How did you decide on this direction/strategy?

Thanks! Free Spirit Press did an amazing job with the design and graphic elements, and the illustrator, Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, created whimsical drawings to represent topics and themes in each chapter. She was really thoughtful about the characters in the illustrations and made them representative of all teens, of every race, size, orientation and ability, which I thought was so important. The book also includes graphic symbols to represent different types of service that are described in the first chapter. These symbols repeat in the margins throughout the book so that teens can quickly flip through to find an idea or suggestion that relates to an area of interest. The book doesn’t need to be read from start to finish. Teens should be able to jump around to topics that they are interested in exploring at different stages of development. I wanted the book to be actionable and engaging, with interactive sections where teens could do self-assessments, make lists of ideas or take notes. Free Spirit publishes exclusively for teens, so they totally agreed with my vision and I’m so grateful that they were able to make it happen.

7. What’s next for you, either in terms of writing or beyond?

As important as this work is to me, I’m also driven to write personal narrative essays about parenting, grief and loss, and living with a challenging illness (something my young family has faced now for several years). I’ve been lucky enough to publish several essays on different platforms, and right now I’m working on a proposal for a narrative non-fiction book to help people live with hope, purpose and perseverance after a difficult diagnosis. I believe that empathy and optimism are choices we can make every day and I’ve learned many lessons about how we can (and should) show up for other people in our daily lives. Living with purpose, caring for and serving others, are the keys to a meaningful life. A candle’s light isn’t diminished by lighting another candle, so I hope my work and my writing can be an inspiration for everyone to share their light with others,

Natalie Silverstein, MPH is an author, speaker, consultant and passionate advocate for family and youth service. Her first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, was published by Gryphon House in 2019 and was named as one of the Top Books for parents who want to raise kind kids by the HuffPost. Her second book, Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference, will be published by Free Spirit Publishing in July, 2022. Buy it here!

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