Sally thought it had been a great Saturday with her two teens. They'd gone to a pro basketball game, cheered their team to victory, eaten pizza, and laughed together. Now they were home with chores and homework to catch up on. But while Sally was congratulating herself, the phone rang and one son announced he was going out with the guys.
"Sorry, you can't go out with the guys—you have some responsibilities to take care of."
"Ah, Mom, all we do is work. We never have fun around here. You won't let me do anything. Everyone else gets to . …"
Sally simply stood in amazement, reflecting on how she'd just given up her whole day for this son, how hard she'd worked to get those tickets, how she'd dipped into her clothes budget for all the extra junk food … and now this.
It's the refrain any parent's familiar with: Let me, please me, cater to me, make me happy. Yet Christ calls all of us to think of others as more important than ourselves. So how do we cultivate other-centered kids in a me-centered world?
Open your heart to others
My friend Debbie's two sons know she has a heart for internationals. Because Debbie and her husband lived in France for 20 years, she understands what it's like to be on foreign soil. So this past year, Debbie's family invited an exchange student to live with them. They also began a weekly international dinner and invited several teens from places such as Macedonia, Bolivia, and Yugoslavia to join them for a simple family meal. During the meal these teens learn about Debbie's family's faith in Christ and ask questions. Before they go home, the students share personal and family needs, and Debbie and her family pray for each. The majority of these teens don't know Christ yet, but they've found a safe, loving place in which to seek. For Debbie's sons, these guests provide perspective. If they feel lonely at school, they only have to remember their international friends, and their self-pity dissipates.
My friend Elaine has poured her life into working with inner-city women and children. Recently she shared with me a letter she received from her son, a college freshman. In reflecting on his family now that he's left the nest, he said, "Mom, there was more to my upbringing than what I was directly taught. Because I spent so much time playing in inner-city playgrounds, I was exposed to unique kids. I watched your compassion and understanding, and I realize now that I was learning about social responsibility. Thank you for making me who I am! I love you."
What a reminder that our children are watching the example we set as we strive to become more other-centered.
Assign doable projects
Our twins Susy and Libby made money by babysitting. But before they ever began to babysit, we had "the talk." I told them I expected them to clean up the house where they were sitting. Dishes had to be washed and toys put away. Even if the mess was there when they arrived, I still wanted them to clean up. I used to be a tired parent with five young children, and I knew coming home to a house left a mess by a babysitter was discouraging. More importantly, though, I wanted my kids to learn to be thoughtful of others.
Is there an elderly friend who needs someone to shop for her or to shovel a driveway this winter? Or a single parent who would appreciate a hot dinner delivered to her when she comes home from work? One of our jobs as a parent is to provide small tasks for our children to handle that enable them to focus on others.
Pray together as a family
At breakfast, take a couple minutes to pray for each other. Include a request for God to give each person someone specific to encourage during the day.
At dinner it's fun to share how God answered our prayers.
We have a bulletin board by our kitchen table. Each January we take down the pictures from the previous year and replace them with the Christmas card photos that arrived. We only include out-of-town friends and family on our board. Each morning during our family prayer time, the prayer leader for the day gets to pick a family on the board for which to pray. This helps keep us more attuned to others.
It's all too easy to become an "encore person"—someone who just wants something more, something better. I do this in my own relationship with God. I'll pray about something, then simply check it off when it's done and forget to thank God for all my blessings. Gratitude is the oft-missing element in becoming an other-centered person. When I remember to thank God for the conversation I had with my neighbor, the difficult yet productive task I finished, the wisdom he gave me in handling a child, the way he's helping me to appreciate my husband, my focus turns from self to God. This discipline spills over into helping me appreciate my family and friends—and models gratitude for my children, too. And the more we're grateful, the more joyful we become.
The bottom line is, joy comes when we serve others. As your family becomes less self-centered, joy will become a trademark of your home, drawing others toward you—and God.
Susan Alexander Yates is a mother of five and author of And Then I Had Kids: Encouragement for Mothers of Young Children and What Really Matters at Home: Eight Crucial Elements for Building Character in the Family.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail email@example.com.