I’ve led a very sheltered life. My kids lead sheltered lives as well. And that’s a blessing in and of itself. We’ve never suffered abject poverty, abuse, or persecution. I’ve never had to send my kids to bed hungry or live in a car. Sure, we’ve had struggles, but even those times were luxury compared to what many in the world suffer. I know there are people in America who deal with hunger and abuse, but by and large, Americans have a higher standard of living than many other countries in the world. This is wonderful, except when it isn’t. As a result of the freedoms and blessings many of us take for granted, it’s difficult to fathom what life is like for someone who doesn’t have the same amenities we do. People lament that kids in America are selfish, irresponsible, and entitled; that a day without video games is unthinkable to most American children. So how can you raise kids who defy those odds? who care about others and want to help? who put others before themselves? By modeling this behavior yourself.
Young children are naturally wired to mimic. It’s how they learn. It’s why there are toy lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners. Children want to be like Mom and Dad. So if you want your kids to grow into mature, empathetic adults, you need to show them what that looks like so they can mimic your concern for others. Make a meal for a mom who just had a baby. Send a get well card to someone who is sick. Weed the garden for an elderly church member. Bring flowers to someone who is down. Involve your kids in the process whenever possible. As you do these things, talk to your children so they can see why you’re doing them. “Mrs. Johnson just had surgery, so we’re going to make dinner for her. She can’t walk around right now, and she’s probably in a lot of pain. I’m going to make lasagna. Would you like to help me make brownies for her for dessert?”
Kids in general (and some adults too) tend to believe they’re the center of the universe. They need to learn that’s not true. Expose them to people who aren’t like them. There are elderly people in nursing homes who cannot run and skip. They might not have family nearby to visit them, and they might be lonely. A visit from a five-year-old would make their week. There are children here in America, maybe even in their own school, who can’t afford new school clothes or even school supplies. Buy extra school supplies with your kids to donate to a “backpack buddy” program. There are kids who are sick and may not get better. Check if you and your child can volunteer in the children’s wing of a hospital to play games or color with some of the patients there. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities around the community as well. Have your kids contribute gently used toys to a toy drive at Christmas, or an extra jacket to Coats for Kids. Buy a package of diapers for a local pregnancy center, or even start a diaper drive yourself in your church. Allow your child to help you organize a special mission offering collection for Sunday school in order to raise money for Bibles for kids in other countries.
As your children get older, encourage them to think up ways they can serve others, based upon their own talents. My oldest son plays the trumpet, and last Christmas our entire family went to a nursing home to sing Christmas carols while he played the trumpet and I played the piano. Afterward, my son (a seventh-grader at the time) spoke with a gentleman who was a Korean War veteran. They had a lovely conversation. It was a highlight of my son’s Christmas break. Over the past few months, my two oldest sons and I have had the opportunity to be pen pals with Marine recruits, and it has been great for my boys. They’ve written about once a week to their respective recruits, and their letters are heartfelt and sometimes poignant. It makes them stop and think about the fact that these recruits could potentially give their lives someday for their country, and that’s nothing to take lightly. We all get excited when “our” recruits write back, and it’s nice to know they appreciate our letters, encouragement, and prayers.
Examine ways your own family can reach out to others. Maybe you can’t adopt an orphan from the other side of the world, but can you spare some money each month to sponsor a child? This is a great way for your kids to pitch in. They can write letters to your sponsored child and get to know him or her. They can learn about another country and realize how blessed they are to have electricity and running water. Perhaps your family can do a “service project of the month.” It can be as simple as baking cookies for a friend who is discouraged or as grandiose as helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Let the kids help you come up with ideas. A few summers ago, my kids and I volunteered at a rescue mission to do Bible stories with the kids once a week. My children were shocked to realize people in our own community didn’t have a home of their own and had to live at the rescue mission, including kids their own ages. Just exposing them to these realities in age-appropriate ways is laying the groundwork for empathy and care for others.
And let us not forget another vital way to instill in your kids a caring mindset: praying with them for people in need. Every night we pray for people we know who are going through health or family problems. My kids may not know all the details of each situation, but we have an ever-changing list of people for whom we pray, including those who don’t know Jesus. They see that caring about someone involves more than physical needs––it includes their spiritual welfare. Sending Bible storybooks to kids in other countries, supporting missionaries, inviting friends to come to church––these are all ways kids can be encouraged to care for others. Start while they’re young so that reaching out will be natural for them. And remind them (and yourself!) that caring for others isn’t something we do to earn favor with God. We have already found favor in God’s eyes because of His Son, Jesus. Our good works don’t earn us a better spot in heaven or anything like that. But as Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need our works, but our neighbor does.” So as Christians, we joyfully seek to serve others God puts on our hearts. And our children are watching us every step of the way, mimicking our service.
In short, we are raising kids who care.