What kind of people do I long for my children to become?
That's a question I often ponder in my quiet moments. My deepest desire is that God's love will shape them into people of compassion in our self-absorbed culture. I long for them to be individuals who offer a cup of cold water to the thirsty (Matthew 25:35); I dream they'll be able to set aside the pull of materialism to spend their resources on worthwhile purposes. But many times, my efforts to mold my children into compassionate kids get thwarted by time pressures. Doctor appointments, soccer games, and homework obligations often overwhelm me! That's why I've learned that in order to bring substance to my dream, I need to be intentional, like Elaine Smythe, one homeschooling mom I know.
Elaine read about a boy who held a pirate-themed birthday party. Instead of having his friends bring presents, the children brought the money they'd have spent on the presents. His family then sent that money to the relief agency through which they sponsored a child overseas. So Elaine asked her 9-year-old daughter, Helen, if she'd like to do something similar for their sponsored child, Roberto, 14, in Brazil. Helen thought it was a wonderful idea.
Helen's birthday party was typical, except for the globe Elaine set on the table along with a letter from Roberto. The kids held back their "gifts" until after they ate their cake, then put their money in a little box. Elaine explained that their family prayed for Roberto one day a week. "We told all my friends how we wrote letters, and how Roberto wrote us back," says Helen. "I read one of his letters. Then we opened the envelopes and added up the dollars. I thought maybe there'd be 20 dollars, but we got 70 dollars! When I look at Roberto's photo now, I think how special he felt when World Vision sent him our money."
Teaching our kids compassion doesn't mean sacrificing to the point of bleakness. It's about doing things families normally do (such as having birthday parties), but doing them in such a way that they involve loving others.
Volunteering as a Family
I've learned one of the best ways to help my kids experience being the hands and feet of Christ is through volunteering as a family. According to a study by the Points of Light Foundation, kids are more likely to stick with serving if they volunteer beside a parent or grandparent.
If you have concerns about safety, or if your kids are naturally shy, this setup is ideal. You get to pick situations that will stretch but not overwhelm your children, and they'll get to serve next to you—the adult in their life who provides them security.
On one Fourth of July, my family and I decided to serve at a "neighborhood picnic." When I called the volunteer coordinator at a downtown Los Angeles rescue mission to volunteer my family, she was stunned at my request. "We've never had a whole family volunteer before," she said. "This is so unusual! Your family can join the college group that's coming." And we did.
As anyone might guess, our then 11- and 12-year-old children, Jeff and Janae, worked harder that day than they've ever worked in my kitchen! They cleaned spills and cooperated with each other (gasp!) without one hint from Dad or me. The four of us worked side by side, listening to guests' stories and holding precious, undernourished babies. When one of us got tired, another filled in.
We always try to mix fun with service, so my husband, Greg, and I planned to take Jeff and Janae out for a treat afterwards, but something better happened. After serving the meal, we explored the crumbling walls of the mission. When we were ready to leave, the kitchen help sat our two kids on stools and gave them huge tubs of ice cream to enjoy! It was such a memorable day for our family that our kids have continued to volunteer at nearby missions—and enjoy it.
But What Can Kids Do?
The main roadblock to family volunteerism, according to the Points of Light study, is finding suitable projects for family volunteers. Yet you can find great opportunities to serve whether you live in a city, suburb, or rural area. Consider these ideas:
Help with kids. Help a church in town that has a latchkey program or a summer "sidewalk Sunday school." You and your kids can do simple things such as serve refreshments. Rachel Miller, one such volunteer, tells how she and her junior-high aged sons babysat at a transition home for new teenage mothers. While it was a great serving opportunity, it became an educational opportunity as well. "My sons asked, 'Where are the dads?'" Rachel says. "I explained about the consequences of unchecked teenage hormones. This led to some great conversations with my boys about their responsibility to remain sexually abstinent before marriage."
Serve a holiday dinner at a street mission. The simplicity of and gratitude for a holiday mission meal keep our celebrations in perspective. Our family served a Thanksgiving meal when our kids were preschoolers. I'd wanted to do this, but wondered how it would work for our kids since they were so young. The other volunteers actually were charmed by them and gave them small tasks to do. Our children also spent a lot of time playing with kids from the mission's neighborhood, which was terrific. I wanted them to see that holidays aren't just about "me, myself, and I." They're also about having fun as we love, serve, and welcome others.
Bring a meal to a housebound elderly person. You can do this through a program such as Meals-on-Wheels or by adopting a senior citizen in your church or neighborhood as a "grandparent."
Do construction or outdoor maintenance projects. Join a group within your church that's cleaning an elderly person's yard. I found a Habitat for Humanity chapter that let us bring our kids who were then under 16 years old.
Visit residents at a nursing home. "Prepare your children first," advises nurse and mother Mary Price. Here's what she told her kids: "A nursing home looks like a hospital and smells funny from medicines and cleaning products. It may smell of urine because many people can't control their bodily functions. When they need help with the bathroom, the workers can't get there fast enough. If people moan and reach out to touch you, don't be afraid; they're not trying to hurt you. It's just that they're excited to see you and they want to respond. Even though they may not understand what's going on, they still need people to love them."
How to Make Family Volunteering Work
Find activities within the capabilities of all your family members, especially if they're young. Or you may want to join another family in a project to make it more fun. How a family chooses to serve will be as different as families themselves.
Pray for the people you're going to serve. You could do that at a family meal or at bedtime before and after you volunteer. Let your kids see how your relationship with God motivates you to love others.
Look for opportunities that promote relationships. When you visit a nursing home, homeless shelter, or soup kitchen, develop friendships. "Service means 'doing with' more than 'doing for,'" says James McGinnis of the Parenting for Peace and Justice Network.
Sharon Norris, a teacher and mother of two boys, tries to teach her sons about forming those types of friendships. Sharon and her kids periodically gather clothes and toys they've outgrown to give to a family in need. "When we take them to this family," Sharon says, "the mom and I sit and talk, while the kids play together." This sort of service helps kids see that compassion is hands-on. You don't simply leave things on a porch, you look people in the eyes and love them (Mark 10:21).
How Our Children Benefit
When we serve with our children, they'll grow in self-confidence as they see they too can make a difference in their world. Later in life, our children more likely will emerge as leaders because they're used to helping and aren't intimidated by someone who looks or talks differently.
Serving also builds character. When kids develop a relationship with someone who struggles to survive, they witness courage and determination. They see how the things our culture values most—personality, sex appeal, and flair—are no substitute for character. As they get older and see how people often love things and use people, our children will have tasted the ways of Jesus, who loved people and used things.
In fact, it's difficult to know who's helped more: our kids, or the folks to whom they've given their time. As I watch my children respond to so-called "needy" folks (such as the clients at the shelter where they've volunteered alongside me), they don't stare or roll their eyes. They don't call them "homeless people," but Mike and Paula and James—individuals with frustrations and worries. The experts call this "empathy." I call it being present to the folks God so loves.
Jan Johnson, a speaker and author, lives with her family in California. Portions of this article were adapted from Growing Compassionate Kids, ©2001 by Jan Johnson. Used with permission of Upper Room Books.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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