A key to raising children who are not self-centered and greedy is to teach them to serve others. This begins in the toddler years as children are asked to take a drink of water to a sibling who doesn’t feel well, help Mommy put away laundry, or to hug a crying friend. As children get older, they can take on a wider range of service projects.
Service helps a child to see outside himself, to notice the suffering and challenges of others. More importantly, it gives them a sense of empowerment—there are challenges in the world, but I can make a difference against them. When children see themselves making a difference in the lives of others, they also understand they can make a difference in their own lives.
Sometimes, in the course of service, they will see that many problems are caused by choices people make but that other problems are not the fault of the person experiencing them. We must teach our children compassion. Certainly we should not teach them to look down on those who suffer through no fault of their own, but we can also teach compassion for those who made bad choices. Sometimes by the time we realize we’ve made terrible choices, it is seemingly too late to prevent the consequences from occurring. Other times, even when we see the person continuing to make wrong choices, we can compassionately recognize that sometimes people were shaped by influences we can’t see and may be struggling with something very difficult to overcome. Because we cannot serve as their judge, we serve and let God do the judging.
As a child serves in a food bank, he will meet many different kinds of people. Some take advantage of the system because they’ve never been taught otherwise or because they’ve been shaped by certain experiences. Others are embarrassed to need help and are desperately seeking self-sufficiently. Realizing that not all people in a given situation are the same will improve the child’s compassion and reduce the likelihood he will engage in stereotypical behavior, such as presuming all poor people are lazy. This will bring him closer to a Christ-like attitude. As we read the New Testament, we can see Jesus respected the poor and the suffering and treated even sinners with compassion. He didn’t accept their sins, but He served them without judgment, even while reminding them to abandon their sins.
Help your children identify causes they care about and then help them find solutions to those causes. If they care about hunger, they can take food to a food bank. If they care about cancer they can participate in a fundraiser to find a cure. If the environment is their passion, they can pick up trash. Helping a child find a special passion can allow him to become an expert in the subject and to provide increasingly more meaningful service in that field.
At the same time, help them find ways to serve outside their special passions as well. Children should be exposed to a wide range of ways to serve and to a range of types of world challenges. This helps them find new passions and also helps them to understand the people they will encounter throughout life.
Service does not have to be a big, planned event. As I was growing up, small acts of service were a natural part of our way of life. When we visited my grandmother, we were expected to first stop at her neighbor’s home, an elderly woman living alone, to see what needed doing. If we went on a picnic we were expected to pick up the trash left behind by others. When my father said, “Our neighbor’s lawn is getting high. I heard he’s been pretty sick,” we knew that meant we should head over and take care of his lawn. After a while, no one had to tell us what needed doing. We were trained to notice.
Even small children can be trained to notice what needs to be done. I remember a preschooler in one of my church classes who was always noticing the needs around him, even at age four. One day he glanced back and saw a teacher standing at the back of the room. He leaped up and found her a chair. Every time we left the large classroom for our own little classroom, he took my hand and helped me out of my chair because I was “very, very old.” (I was in my forties.) His parents had trained him to look for ways to serve. Simply by pointing out needs and by fulfilling needs yourself, you will help your children learn to serve others.
A child who is always taking care of people will not be selfish. He will be eager to share what little he has with others. When he learns to notice how little many others have, he will become grateful for his own gifts and priviliges.
If you have a child who has become self-centered, service is the best cure. It takes a great deal of time, but eventually the child will begin to pay attention to the world of need he has entered instead of focusing on his own selfish desires.
In this series of articles, we’ve talked about how to help children learn to serve others, to be aware of suffering in the world, to be thankful for what he has, and to work for what he wants. The three goals are entirely related, as one cannot appreciate what he has until he realizes how many people have even less. He cannot be thoughtful and kind until he understands what causes trials. He cannot be self-sufficient until he has seen what self-sufficiency brings and until he has learned to work and to contribute. Although these goals take a great deal of time and sacrifice, the results are more than worth it. We are raising children for the long run, not the short run and the more work we put into them today, the happier their tomorrows (and therefore your tomorrows) will be.