How to raise kids who care

Teach your children well, and chances are they'll make service a way of life.

THE THANKSGIVING TURKEYS SIMMERED IN THE OVENS as my 4-year-old and 2-year-old flitted between the kitchen and the dining room. My brother and his girlfriend helped to set the tables, and my parents as always put together a dazzling array of dishes and sweets. Others went back and forth bringing out hot dishes and calling for silverware or rolls as they headed out to the dining room.

Thanksgiving food It was a fabulous Thanksgiving, made even more special because three generations of my family served the meal to people we did not know. We, along with a score of other volunteers, served more than 500 people, and the highlight of my day was watching my daughter at the kids' table—nose to nose with a child who wanted a closer look at blue eyes—both of them laughing.

This was my children's first experience of service, although I am not sure it seemed any more unusual to them than a Thanksgiving with their aunts, uncles, and cousins. I doubt they'll even remember that first encounter of service. But it is now a part of who they are, the first chapter in a story I tell and will retell as their lives take shape and their understanding of the world and their place in it grows.

As a young parent I sometimes find the task of raising children overwhelming. I'm not so consumed by the small tasks of diapers, tantrums, or even homework, but I am always wrestling in the back of my mind with how to help them navigate this world and grow into conscientious and caring adults. How do I help them make sound decisions and healthy choices in their adolescence? How do I help them value their own life enough to treat themselves and those around them with respect and love?

As I struggle with this, I often come back to the need to heed our baptismal call to serve. We are called to serve God through serving others. In my own experience I've learned that we lose our self-centeredness by serving others and find in the end that our very self is valuable to God. My hope in introducing my children to service is to help them make service a way of life.

Getting hooked on service
I was 10 the first time I served a meal in a homeless shelter. My initial reaction was one of fear and a bit of revulsion. It smelled, it was loud, and people were crabby and hungry. I stayed behind the serving line filling trays of food. But then I caught sight of my mother. I watched her move between the tables bringing plates of food to clients. I saw as she touched each person's hand or shoulder, met their eyes, smiled, laughed, and talked. I stood there watching her treat each guest as if they were one of my siblings or me. I was transfixed and no longer afraid.

Encourage your kids to a life of service

Jesus calls us to a life that is not narrow, stingy, or circumscribed, but rather flows out from God, through each of us, and into the world for the good of all. This is the Christian basis of a life of service.

Here are some ways to foster both the behavior and the worldview to which Jesus calls us:

Encourage gratitude in your children. One way to do this is to begin family meals together with the question, "What are you grateful for today?" Even better, for your prayer before meals have everyone tell: What am I grateful for? What do I want to ask God for? What am I sorry for? And whom did I help today?

Foster empathy. The foundation of all morality is empathy, the ability to identify with the feelings of others. From early on, gently invite your children to think, "How must it feel to be in that situation?" When they're tempted to speak ill of others, invite them to empathy instead. To give your children a wider sense of empathy beyond your own home and neighborhood:

  • Put up a map of the world somewhere in your home. Refer to it when news happens that your children are aware of. From magazines or calendars, display pictures of kids from different cultures on your refrigerator or kitchen wall. Help them to identify with children who live in different places and circumstances, but who are much like themselves.
  • Talk to your children about issues of justice and service at your workplace or in the neighborhood. Let them know that these are questions responsible adults take seriously.

Encourage generosity. Help your children recognize that everything your family has is a gift from God. We are not the source of life or goodness. What we have in our lives has been given to us and entrusted to our care. Reflect that in your patterns of tithing as well as in your purchasing decisions. Involve your children in charitable giving decisions and in discussions about what you buy.

Don't take action alone. If you are getting involved in a service project, invite other friends along for support as well as enjoyment. When you take action with others of like values and spiritual aspirations, you strengthen your chances of making this an integral part of your life.

Make service experiences joyous. Working closely with people who are troubled can become grim. Take inspiration from the work of the Little Brothers of the Poor whose motto is "bread and flowers." They recognize the whole person when they visit the elderly poor. They realize that "necessities" go beyond basic food and shelter and also include nourishment for the human spirit. And that means joy.

Underscore that the "giving" flows in all directions, and that life doesn't break down into "helpers" and "the helped." We all have gifts; we all have needs. Foster an awareness of mutuality and a recognition of how God works through all of us.

Teach the difference between the virtues of charity and justice, which are closely allied. Charity responds to immediate needs (e.g., a hungry person, a family out in the cold). Justice works to eliminate the social conditions that cause those needs (e.g., racism, high unemployment). Actions that begin with charity often move toward justice.—Tom McGrath

I still stayed behind the serving line, but I did make eye contact with people as I filled their plates. Had I not been able to see my mother across the room, my whole experience might have ended up being one I wanted to forget.

My parents had always been involved in committees and ministries at our parish, but this was different. This was the first time I saw them serving, and I realized that my parents lived service as a way of life.

After college, I took a job working with young adult volunteers. I found that the healthiest ones emotionally were involved in the lives of others, whether they were children at a homeless daycare, elderly in public housing, inmates, or persons with disabilities. Focusing on someone else's needs, wealth of experience, and friendship helps people broaden their worldview and realize their own gifts.

Not only is service clearly a part of our gospel call, but it is also a critical part of being a responsible citizen and living a healthy and happy life. Author Eugene Kennedy says, "Happiness is the by-product of being absorbed into something worthwhile outside of yourself."

Service consumes our time and talents and challenges our perspectives. It's often called getting "hooked" on service because once volunteers are hooked, they never see the world the same way again. One key to helping children get "hooked" is in the family.

A study conducted by the Advertising Council in conjunction with MTV and the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2000 found that 87 percent of young adults who volunteered were "nudged": "One of the differences between volunteers and non-volunteers is the apparent lack of volunteer role models in non-volunteers' lives. The volunteers with whom we spoke made countless references to family, friends, or co-workers who had nudged them to get involved."

Unless families value serving together, chances are small that children will come to service on their own.

Taking the plunge
Figuring out how to do service with children can be an ordeal, but with a little patience, organization, and persistence families can begin to understand their faith in a whole new way.

A child's initial experiences with service should take place in the comfort of their own home or neighborhood. It can be as simple as raking the leaves of an elderly neighbor or clearing their own plates after meals.

The conversations we parents have with them are how they begin to understand "chores" as service, how we all fit into the world and how we are responsible for our corner, and when helping a neighbor, what love of neighbor means and why someone older may need help. Small conversations not only help kids to see their role in the family, but also to begin to sense what others might experience or need.

Children are old enough to be able to understand basic concepts of rich and poor and sick and healthy by age 4. This is a good time to introduce "packaging projects" at home. These include packing lunches for a soup kitchen, making birthday cards for shut-ins, or gathering Christmas gifts for a toy drive.

We've set these up with friends and had each family bring a different item to pack. Organizing these projects involves little more than a few phone calls. The children decorate lunch bags or color cards, and they love doing it with their friends.

As children participate in more of these projects they may start to take the initiative. My 6-year-old son and I were buying school supplies last August when he turned to me and said, "Boy, I need a lot of stuff. I wonder if there are any poor kids who can't afford all this."

Right there, we talked about it and decided to see if we could find kids who might need school supplies. A couple of phone calls later we had located a family shelter with nine children who could use supplies. Micah organized his friends to fill nine backpacks brimming with supplies and treats. We were able to get the names and ages of each child ahead of time, and each of our kids picked out some specific things for one particular child. My 4-year-old traipsed around Kohl's studying each backpack asking, "Do you think Crystal would like this one, Mommy?" The entire experience was more real when we had someone's name to say and think about.

The results
If service has been a part of their growing up, children apply their creativity to generosity. Without any prompting from Mom or Dad, Cam Barone of Naperville, Illinois decided that for his eighth birthday he would have his party, but since he really didn't need any more toys, he would keep one gift and give the rest away.

He and his mom were able to locate a needy child whose birthday was within a week of his. He notified his guests of his plans via the invitations and delivered a trunk full of beautifully wrapped gifts to a parish on Chicago's South Side to be delivered to his birthday buddy.

Two 11-year-old girls, Kay and Katie Colmone, have run a lemonade stand in our neighborhood during the past four summers with their same little sign that reads, "All Poceeds (sic) For The Poor." Neighbors now look forward to their stand and buy glasses of lemonade with $20 bills. They have raised hundreds of dollars and each summer select a different charity to receive the donations.

As children get older the scope of service opportunities expands. Construction projects such as Habitat for Humanity or Christmas in April where volunteers rehab homes are a fabulous experience for teens who will find themselves surrounded by older role models.

Organizing a fun fair for a group home of children with disabilities gets preteens and teens logistically organized with specific games and prizes. As one mother of five notes, "Once the kids begin to get comfortable, the boundaries get blurred and they just start playing together."

Paul Wadell in his book Friendship and the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press) writes, "Knowledge of God is not something gained at a safe distance, but something that comes to us by sharing in the very life of God."

That is what we want for our children from these experiences—to encounter God through those they serve. To be sure, service does not always serve those we are reaching out to—the problems are complex and the things we can accomplish with children may seem small. But the greatest transformation taking place is in the hearts and lives of our children.

Being able to meet the people you are serving is important. One year Kathy and Bob McGourty of suburban Chicago and their children Zachary, 17, Tyler, 15, Jacob, 12 and Kaileen, 10, prepared a Christmas box of food and gifts for an elderly woman in their sharing parish. The children enjoyed meeting her and hearing her stories, but they were bothered by the terrible condition of her public housing apartment. It was hard for them to believe that anyone had to live in such a small, smelly, beat-up place.

The most critical learning, however, came a few months later when they received an Easter card from her with $5 inside to buy gifts for the kids. The conversations around the dinner table buzzed for days.

Story time

When teaching your children the importance of service, it helps to brush up on storytelling skills. The stories we tell them, whether drawing on scripture or their own experiences, help them to understand situations, solve problems, and process their feelings.

Our Catholic collection of stories is ripe with images children can understand. They love to hear about the good Samaritan or how Jesus fed the 5,000. They love these stories even more when we tell them with a few added details from their own lives.

Tell stories that help them understand the service they have done. After packing lunches for the shelter, tell a story about someone opening that lunch the next day and enjoying the snacks and note.

Another type of story, more like a parable, helps kids understand the "moral of the story." Stories are how children reflect.

Since our Thanksgiving dinner of service, we tell a story we call "Baby with the Blue Eyes" about a baby who can look deep into everyone's eyes and see right into their heart. The baby doesn't notice differences in skin color, physical abilities, or age, but can look into their hearts and know they are a special part of God. Each time I tell this story it's different, but it always calls my children to think about the dignity of each person and the fact that everyone is special.

Four-year olds can't understand an abstract discussion of these concepts, but the stories you tell are gifts and guides to help children grow and learn from their experience of service.—Christina Zaker

Older children can serve by tapping into their talents. A sports enthusiast can volunteer to coach, a science whiz can tutor, an avid reader can do storytime at the local library, a seamstress can make blankets for a neonatal center. Take a look at your child's gifts and help them see them as blessings to be shared.

Make it meaningful
A dynamic parish or neighborhood may already have service opportunities in place, but if not, it takes time to organize projects.

Some not-for-profits aren't geared to having young volunteers, so it takes some creativity to find out what a place needs and to adapt it for kids. One of the shelters we packed lunches for had always had people gather at their location to pack, and children were not allowed. I only had to ask, "Can we show up with a donation of lunches already packed?" and it suddenly became a kid-friendly project.

When working with younger children, it can seem chaotic and it's easy to wonder if they have the slightest idea of what they are doing. But the critical piece is how you talk with them about it, not during the actual project, but before, when buying supplies, or after, when the service has been done. Your guidance is key to how they understand what they're doing and how it ties into what God asks of all of us. And that can be the hardest part.

Socrates' line, "The unexamined life is not worth living" goes for experience, too. If not reflected on, then it's not worth doing. Parents need to prepare kids well for what they will be doing so the service project actually gets accomplished and so young comments or questions do not hurt the feelings of those you serve.

You will also need to help them reflect on it afterwards. They will see a lot and need time to process it. Even a project as simple as a canned food drive can raise hard questions.

When Dan McKeown was in high school, he participated with his parish in Harvest Day, where teens canvass the neighborhoods collecting canned food for area pantries. At one house, a man slammed the door in his face. Dan stood there for a moment in shock and heard a child inside ask, "Why can't we give him some food, Daddy?" The only reply was, "Shut up." Not only did Dan have to deal with the unexplainable rejection, but he also wondered what would happen as that child grew up in such a seemingly ungenerous household.

Another time the McGourty family was working at a soup kitchen. This was the third time they had worked here and knew to expect a predominantly older male crowd. This time, however, a family walked in with children younger than theirs. Their children needed to process this for days. It shook them up to think of children as homeless and they needed to redefine their understanding of who was poor.

Hard questions
Parents will find themselves wrestling with service and justice issues on a daily basis. Kids ask hard questions. One night my son was lying in his new bedroom, after we had just dormered the upstairs and finally had some extra space. He said his prayers and then began asking questions about the poor. "Why are people poor? Who takes care of them? Where do they live?" Then he asked a tough one: "Why can't we let some people live with us, since we have two bedrooms downstairs now?"

Teachable moments are everywhere. Choices to forgo cable TV or to become vegetarian are bigger discussions, but daily conversations on issues of justice and faith take place more often when children are part of the service experience.

Bedtime prayers are different. As 10-year-old Kaileen McGourty says, "Now I know, when I pray for the poor, I have those faces to remember." Even complaints about having to share a bedroom disappeared after one family visited a family shelter and saw how entire families lived in a single bedroom.

Families can make choices like the Gees of Chicago who throw all their daily change in a "charity jar" and allow their 5-year-old son to use it each month to buy food for a pantry or gifts for a child at a shelter. Even the process of sorting through your child's toys to weed out ones they no longer use should not take place when they are asleep. Turn the experience into a positive one by discussing which items can be given to the poor and which items are broken or missing parts and should be thrown away.

Service takes time to organize, to prepare, and to be comfortable with explaining to your children what they are doing and how it ties into their faith. But the benefits far outweigh the costs.

You are reaching out to others, challenging your own worldview, and, more importantly, at this stage in their lives, helping your children to grow and learn and meet God in the everyday. You are laying the stepping stones to guide them through adolescence, laying the foundation for them to become passionate about the world and how they can make a real difference. Service is a way of life—and if done right, it will foster a heart of justice in each of our children. 

Christina Zaker worked with young adult volunteers for 12 years through DePaul University and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Currently she is working with her favorite young volunteers—her children. She lives in Chicago. This article appeared in the May 2003 (Volume 68, Number 5: page 22-27) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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