If your kids ever wonder, "What does God look like?" send them to me. I've seen His hands.
I've seen them all my life – on an Iowa couple named George and Ruth. Before I could even read, I watched those hands empty bedpans, prepare sponge baths and feed Ruth's elderly mother. During my teen years, after a drunk driver demolished our car with my whole family inside, I watched those hands build a mini-hospital in our livingroom. They made meals, washed sheets, scrubbed dishes and administered medications for months.
In the 61 years of George and Ruth's marriage, those hands regularly delivered meals to shut-ins, scraped plates at church functions and hugged strangers in nursing homes. Today, George is 91 and Ruth is 86, but they don't seem to notice. Those hands still fold bulletins, stuff envelopes for church mailings, and squeeze the shoulders of neighbors in their assisted living apartments.
George and Ruth haven't ended world hunger. They haven't cured AIDS. They just see needs and quietly, tenderly meet them. My grandparents put flesh and bone to God's great love.
Those hands not only changed who I was – they changed who I want to be.
Have your kids seen God's hands? It's great to talk about Jesus washing feet and feeding crowds, but those accounts are just bedtime stories to children who don't witness servant behavior in their world.
That realization convicts me to examine my definition of "servanthood." See, I'm a doer. I count my day successful if I've marked everything off my checklist. If you're like me, you may even battle a production mentality in the realm of serving. Teaching Sunday school classes or taking someone a meal or writing a check to charity are all good activities. But are we cheerful givers? Or are we just trying to fill a quota? Hoping to impress someone? Attempting to get the church staff off our backs?
I'm not dissing day planners and lists, but my hunch is that Jesus wouldn't use them. He seemed to keep his schedule open for divine appointments. He never avoided a task that was "beneath" Him or considered any person unworthy of His time.
Sure, He got frustrated: He wept for our lack of understanding, but He never gave up on His mission. Whether He was performing a marvelous miracle or holding a child, He did everything with great compassion.
He asked us to do likewise. Take time. Be humble. Keep on. Love.
Simple commands…but hard commands. Commands that don't fit on a checklist.
Like God himself, our kids aren't tracking the number of our activities or judging how "good" those works may seem. They're watching to see if our hands are working in tandem with our hearts.
Growing up in church, I learned that following Christ's example led to heavenly treasures. What I didn't know was how richly God rewards servant behavior here on earth!
Maybe you've experienced those feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction after helping someone…but that's just the beginning. Numerous studies link mental and physical health benefits with servanthood. Other research suggests that kids with a servant mindset have higher GPAs, better reading comprehension, sharper critical thinking and problem solving skills, higher levels of creativity, and a greater understanding of and appreciation for others. Kids who are given opportunities to serve others also tend to make healthier lifestyle choices and develop better social skills than those who don't volunteer.
Even kids as young as five can reap some of these benefits, research suggests. Deborah Spaide, author of Teaching Your Kids to Care: How to Discover and Develop the Spirit of Charity in Your Children says that parents do their children a disservice by sheltering them too much from the world's suffering.
"Kids can only go on for so long, feeling such painful empathy without any opportunity to do anything about it, before they begin to tell themselves to stop feeling anything at all." Spaide says.
She suggests pointing them toward altruism before they become hardened, because serving others "helps kids discover their talents, hone their skills and begin to believe in themselves."
It's never too early to being cultivating servantlike traits. If we start by teaching and modeling basic kindness, we lay a foundation for communicating the value of work and charity. Some worthwhile aspects of servanthood to teach include
1. Empathy and compassion: Around the time they start talking, children are capable of empathy. When psychologists studied young children whose parents were physically or emotionally hurt, they observed that the kids either sought to solve the problem or offered comfort and kindness to the parent. It's critical that we nurture this inherent concern for others.
2. Godly work ethic: The Bible frequently warns against idleness, asserting that it leads to ruin. Work is not a punishment from God but a means by which we develop character. People who comprehend the purpose of work – and who find satisfaction in a job well done – are most likely to behave in ways that will improve their world.
3. Volunteering, serving and giving: In God's economy, our time and money are not our own. We are stewards of his earthly kingdom. People who understand and act on this principle set themselves up to receive abundant blessing, in this life and the next!
4. Discernment in Servanthood: Compassion must be tempered by wisdom. Kids need to recognize that even if their motives are pure, other people's may not be. There are ways they can protect themselves while giving their time and money as wisely as possible.
My ultimate goal is to wear God's hands like my grandparents do and to pass that legacy down to my own children. The earlier kids see those hands at work, the greater chance we have of equipping them for a lifetime of compassion and service.
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The tiny church sanctuary where I spent half my childhood had no opening windows or air conditioning. One blistering summer, I remember watching sweat roll down old men's necks and marveling as women folded bulletins into neat accordion fans to cool their faces. The singing melted into a lethargic murmur, and our pastor pressed his hands at his sides when he spoke to hide the wide, wet circles under his arms.
Then one Sunday, we entered the auditorium to feel a cool, pleasant blast that seemed to emanate straight from heaven! High in the center of the room, a ceiling fan whirred. Congregants had already gathered beneath it, awed by its air and questioning its origins. Later, the pastor publicly thanked an anonymous donor for his gift.
"Who do you think it was?" I asked my mom after service, as church members lingered, laughing, in the benevolent breeze.
She smiled and whispered, "It was your dad."
Although the rest of the world has probably forgotten the mysterious arrival of the ceiling fan, I still feel proud when I recall Dad's donation. He didn't have to contribute millions or make the evening news – his small but meaningful act sank deep into my heart and my memory.
"We're living in a material world…" pop star Madonna sang in the 80s. Hairstyles, fashions and music trends have changed since then, but unfortunately, her sentiment remains accurate. What's particularly disturbing is that debt problems are starting earlier than ever before. A bankrate.com article reports:
"Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 now boast the second-highest rate of bankruptcy…. The average credit card debt for this group increased by 55 percent between 1992 and 2001, with the average young adult household now spending approximately 24 percent of its income on debt payments."1
Mounting debt in this country is just one indication that we need a refresher on Jesus' "good and faithful servant" illustration (Matthew 25:14-30) – not just for our own sakes, but for our kids as well.
Many of our money problems (and probably lots of non-financial struggles, too) result from our forgetting whose resources we're managing (Psalm 24:1, James 1:17). Time, talents, skills, and health are all tools on loan to us with the expectation that we'll share them, do good with them, and use them to glorify the Master.
I wish all of my giving could be glitzy, like donating a kidney or volunteering on Extreme Home Makeover. But more often, my contribution probably pays for the church's copy machine ink or toilet paper.
But that's OK. Giving was never intended to be a periodic, only-for-desperate-needs activity. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to tithe (give a tenth of) everything they had. He asked for their firstfruits – the best of their harvest, before they took any for themselves. While tithing isn't a New Testament mandate, it serves as a valuable guideline today, along with these commands and examples:
God also made some bold promises concerning rewards for His good and faithful servants if they would first trust Him to care for them (Malachi 3:10, Deuteronomy 15:10).
I heard about the poor widow's offering (Luke 21:1-3) a hundred times growing up, but it was never as real, or visible, as the ceiling fan. According to Deborah Spaide, author of Teaching Your Kids to Care: How to Discover and Develop the Spirit of Charity in Your Children, the most empowering giving experiences for kids involve the tangible. She says simply collecting coins is less satisfying because "it requires too much abstraction for kids to imagine the money turning into biscuits for hungry children."
You know your kids are watching – so start involving them in your benevolence and teaching them to be cheerful givers. Don't know where to begin? Sites like learningtogive.org suggest:
Just before my 17th birthday, a drunk driver killed my mom. My dad, brother and I were in the car too, so the crash devastated us physically as well as emotionally. My body healed in a few months, but my mind plunged deeper into despair. Plagued by depression and even suicidal ambitions, I doubted I could ever recover from this tragedy.
Then a speech teacher asked if I'd be willing to visit elementary schools and tell my story. Though I hardly felt speaking was my forte, I desperately wanted to let everyone know the dangers of driving while intoxicated. I spoke in numerous classrooms my senior year, and was even invited to testify before the state legislature to plead for tougher drunk driving laws. So began a string of opportunities for me to talk to other teens, law makers, even DUI offenders. I'll never fully know how my words impacted others, but I'm sure of one thing: I was being changed.
Out of the wreckage of my life, God provided purpose and healing. He opened doors and invited me to look beyond myself. I've seen firsthand the truth in Ghandi's words: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
The Bible tells us God has prepared good works for each of us to do in His name (Ephesians 2:10). Researchers add this recommendation: empower kids to start that work sooner rather than later. Studies show that volunteer experiences during childhood and adolescence increase the likelihood of a young person developing a lifelong charitable ethic. Conversely, kids are less likely to retain the values and behavior of service if they're not exposed before their teenage years.1
When kids take time to put others first, they, too, will reap many benefits. In 2003, Serviceleader.org published a paper on volunteerism in children under 14.2 Author Gabina Torres reviewed a number of studies, including one by the Search Institute that involved some 47,000 youth, and she discovered:
Sometimes, we all need a reminder that being an agent of change doesn't require a Superman costume, a Lone Ranger mask, or a Batmobile. One little boy proved that in John 6. He wasn't bold or mysterious. He didn't have super powers or fancy weapons. All he had was his lunch. All he did was freely give it away.
As we teach our children to serve, we must assure them that our efforts alone are never enough. Only God can turn our meager offerings into miracles.
We need to show our kids that, besides prayerfully partnering with God, a good volunteer:
Kids can be particularly effective servants when they volunteer alongside friends or family members, or with service-oriented clubs or youth groups. Then there's no pressure to single-handedly save the world. They avoid the anxiety of facing an unfamiliar situation alone. Best of all, they can bond – and even have fun! – with their fellow workers while improving someone else's life.
Local and national volunteer websites can point you toward service opportunities for kids. You can also contact a favorite non-profit group, or find out about projects your church has undertaken. Here are just a few kid-friendly possibilities:
Take pictures when your kids participate in these activities, just as you would when they're playing a sport or goofing off at home. Photos will serve as a reminder of the positive feelings and fun they had in the midst of volunteering and will make them want to "lose themselves in the service of others" again and again!
In several Seattle schools, the phrase, "a little child shall lead them" has taken on new meaning. Every few weeks, facilitators of a compassion training program called Roots of Empathy allow a guest "teacher" – a baby from the community – to spark class discussions. Students observe the infant over the course of the year. They ask his parents questions about his behavior and learn about his likes and dislikes. They even help feed and hold him.
Roots of Empathy (ROE) advocates believe that kids can discover the emerging individuality of another human being by bonding with a vulnerable infant. If children develop compassion and protective instincts for a helpless baby, ROE supporters say, then perhaps those emotions will carry over into the way they view their classmates, community members and all citizens of the world.
We all hope our children will grow up to be kind, gracious individuals who leave a positive legacy. But can we be proactive in raising empathetic children? Read on for answers to some key questions parents and educators ask.
Q. What is empathy?
A. Researchers Lynda Haynes and Arthur Avery describe empathy as "...the ability to recognize and understand another person's perceptions and feelings, and to accurately convey that understanding through an accepting response."1
Q. Can kids learn empathy?
A. The capacity for empathy exists in all of us. Infants cry or make happy sounds in response to another baby's noises. Kids as young as two or three often attempt to comfort another child or a parent.2
Research also links empathy education to a decrease in aggression and at-risk behaviors. Kids who have received empathy training tend to show higher levels of creativity, reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. They problem-solve on a deeper level and are less prone to make shallow or snap judgments. In general, they do better in school.3
Successful empathy training – whether in the home, in school, or elsewhere – must include helping kids understand others' feelings and equipping them to act when they see a need they can meet.
Q. What are some practical ways to teach empathy?
Q. How can parents demonstrate empathy?
A. Research suggests there is no single greater way to teach empathy than by example. Parents can
Q. What are some barriers to developing empathy?
A. A number of factors can prevent children from forming healthy levels of empathy. One of the most common examples of this is found in children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). When a young child's basic needs for affection and attention go unmet, he will likely struggle all his life to trust and empathize with others.
Other hindrances to empathetic development include:
Q. Who provides a good example of empathy?
A. Stories of compassionate individuals – from Mother Teresa and Ghandi to Clara Barton and Albert Schweitzer – pepper the pages of history. While we can learn from their examples, God alone is the root of all empathy. The Bible tells us he is the "source of all comfort" and the One who gives us the ability to comfort others (II Corinthians 1:3-4 NLT).
Christ — the perfect example of compassion —
Plug your kids in to the Source of all comfort, the Root of all empathy, and you'll build a firm foundation for raising compassionate kids.
Lori VanDer Kamp often drives her daughters through the poorer neighborhoods of northeast Portland, OR. As a founder of Portland Urban Ministries Project, a church and outreach facility, she sees struggling people everyday. She sees the poor in spirit who seek honest means of improving their lives. She also sees drug dealers, con artists and abusers of all kinds. Lori knows firsthand the challenges of determining who needs the ministry’s time and money the most. What's even more difficult is teaching her young interns, her church kids and her own children how to be safe and discerning in their giving and service.
She recalls a time when she and her family saw a man sitting beside a stoplight, holding a cardboard sign that read "Anything will help." Lori's husband pulled out a box of food they kept in their car for just such occasions — but the man turned it down flat. His sign might as well have read, "Give me cash, then move along."
Christ categorically commands us to love our neighbors and care for the poor. But when we encounter folks who seem more interested in pocket change than life change, it's easy to grow cynical. So what do we tell our kids about helping others? Of course, we want to teach them to light the world — but we also cringe to think of them giving their hard earned dollars to swindlers or falling victim to predators who would exploit their compassion and innocence.
When Jesus sent his disciples into the world, he urged them to be "as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves" (Matt 10:16). He didn't want them to be hardened or afraid, but he wanted them to be aware. This same lesson will benefit our kids. If we empower them with the tools to discern, they have a better chance of serving as safe, confident ambassadors for God, even in our absence.
Where should your kids give their time, money, energy and talents? Where are they most likely to learn and grow, and to help others do the same? Here are a few ways we can aid them in making these important decisions, and prepare them to handle tough situations on their own in the future:
Just as we want our children to serve the world wisely, we also want them to develop a healthy sense of physical self-preservation. It's shocking — but unfortunately, not uncommon today — to read headlines about kids being exploited even in the "safest" environments, sometimes by adults they know. The National Crime Prevention Council suggests teaching these precautions:
Dr. David Warden, psychologist at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom, says kids are often unable to recognize ulterior motives in others. He says it can also be difficult for them to exercise the necessary caution around those they don’t know well because "it clashes with the social constraints on children to be polite to adults."2
That's why Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, Inc., suggests advising kids, "You don't have to be polite to someone who makes you feel scared or uncomfortable."
Fitzgerald urges parents to empower their children so they have a course of action to follow if they find themselves in awkward situations. Some of her other suggestions include reminding kids:
None of these tips come with a guarantee. Even the wisest, most discerning and most prepared servants will sometimes get duped. When it happens to our kids, we can help them remember that God knows their heart and is still proud of their efforts — as are we! Christ himself was sometimes shot down, but he never stopped reaching out or loving others. Author Brennan Manning urges us to follow His lead:
"The lives of those fully engaged in the human struggle will be riddled with bullet holes," he says. "Those who wear bulletproof vests protecting themselves from failure, shipwreck and heartbreak will never know what love is. The unwounded life bears no resemblance to the Rabbi."4
W-O-R-K – for many, the ultimate four-letter word. Some cheat and steal to avoid it. Others exert and exhaust themselves to finance the finer things. Some work several jobs just to feed the family. More than a few end up anxious, ailing or even incarcerated!
In the beginning, even work was good. God gave Adam and Eve a vast plot of land with outstanding soil. All they had to do was harvest the perfect produce. Then sin entered the garden — and it brought weeds.
After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God told them "…the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you…" (Genesis 3:17-18 NLT).
Work isn't what it used to be. But our Master is still a loving God who blesses and supplements our meager efforts. The trick is getting that message through to kids in a culture that exhorts us to make loads of money fast by looking out for number one. How can we help our children discover a profound sense of value and accomplishment in honest labor? Here are a few suggestions for helping your kids develop a work ethic of Biblical proportions.
Work, like anything else can be destructive if taken to extremes. Working too little, numerous Proverbs tell us, leaves folks poor, hungry, weary, destructive, and enslaved to others. The apostle Paul urged gossips and meddlers to settle down and work with their hands (I Timothy 5:13, II Thessalonians 3:11-12).
On the flip side, people who work too much are warned against wearing themselves out (Proverbs 23:4) or chasing after quick riches (Proverbs 28:20). These behaviors often draw people away from God and cause them significant grief (I Timothy 6:10).
A key aspect of a Godly work ethic is balance. As we train our kids to live well-rounded lives that include work, family and hobbies, we can show them that even the aspects of life requiring the most effort can be extremely rewarding.
Below are just a few of the "perks" that accompany honest labor.
WORK PERK #1: Work allows us to be self-reliant and respected.
Read It: Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody (I Thessalonians 4:11-12).
Model It: Tell your kids about your job. Better yet, take them to work. Let them see you interact with coworkers. Help them understand how you accomplish your daily tasks.
Teach It: Assign chores and enforce their completion. Teach responsibility by making kids accountable for their own items. Encourage youngsters in entrepreneurial efforts, like running a lemonade stand or starting a lawn care venture.
WORK PERK #2: Work entitles us to an honest earthly reward.
Read It: When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned (Romans 4:4 NLT).
Model It: Tell your kids Dad and/or Mom go to work so they can pay for food and other necessities. Explain that you have a certain amount of money to spend based on your earnings; if you want something that isn’t in the budget, you have to save up for it.
Teach It: Find ways to teach the value of money. Offer financial incentives for doing extra chores. Help older kids build their own budget. (See books by financial experts like Ron Blue and Larry Burkett for suggestions on raising money-saavy kids).
WORK PERK #3: Work affords us the joy of helping others.
Read It: …use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need (Ephesians 4:28 NLT). A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25).
Model It: Let your kids see you give to charitable organizations and church. Get the family involved in service projects — even "small" things like baking for a sick friend or cleaning an elderly neighbor's house.
Teach It: Encourage kids' involvement in service clubs or youth groups. Teach them to respect and honor elders, veterans and other authority figures by opening doors, speaking politely, or otherwise showing appreciation.
Read It: The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much (Ecclesiastes 5:12).
Model It: Revel in a job you've done well ("Look at that spotless living room. Now this is a place I can relax in!")
Teach It: Help kids discover their passions and channel them into meaningful activities and service. When people strive toward an exciting, energizing goal, the effort required to achieve that end rarely feels like "labor."
Read It: Lazy people want much but get little, but those who work hard will prosper (Proverbs 13:4 NLT).
Model It: Practice fairness and integrity in your dealings with others. Strive to be highly competent in your field — even if you're a stay-at-home parent who receives no monetary compensation. If you get a bonus check or a raise, take the family to dinner; let them know the funds were a result of your good work.
Teach It: Praise your child's hearty effort, kindness and integrity. Show delight when they share with a sibling or help around the house voluntarily. Reward them for mature behavior with small treats or opportunities for "big kid" activities.
Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." By offering our kids a Godly perspective on work, and teaching them how not to fear it, we free them to step out in faith, pursue opportunities and follow dreams.
On Christmas morning, after devouring Mom's legendary homemade sticky buns, the Stevens family gathers around the Christmas tree. The three kids — Danny, 10, Molly, 8 and Christopher, 6 — excitedly begin opening their presents.
Their parents' joy soon turns to dismay as they observe the children's behavior. Like hungry sharks in a feeding frenzy, Danny, Molly and Christopher greedily rip open each gift only to toss it aside, searching for another package bearing their names.
Particularly troubling to Sharon and Rick Stevens is that none of the kids acknowledges the relatives who sent the gifts in the first place. They show zero interest in opening the cards attached to the gifts. After each child opens the final gift, all three continue to search for still more presents, making comments such as "Is that all I get?" or "How come Molly got more presents than I did?"
Unfortunately, the Stevens' experience is common. In a materialistic, consumer oriented culture, we face a real challenge in teaching thankfulness and contentment to children. They are conditioned to believe they are entitled to everything they want — now! Kids have also come to believe they should always get the biggest and best.
The Center for a New American Dream reports another disturbing trend known as the nag factor. Its recent surveys found that nearly 60 percent of kids nag their parents for a toy or a privilege even after being given a no. In fact, 10 percent of all 12- and 13-year-olds admit they will beg their parents more than 50 times for products they've seen on TV.
Christian parents are called to cultivate character traits such as thankfulness, generosity and self-sacrifice. The Bible commands us, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Jesus warns us, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). And Paul describes greedy people as idolaters who will not inherit the kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:5).
One of the most effective ways to combat the cultural mind-set is by modeling a grateful attitude. Verbally thank God on a regular basis, even for simple things like a roof over your head and food.
Also, do your best to model gratitude in your other relationships: friends, relatives and co-workers — and not only when they do something special for you. Let others know how much you appreciate them simply for who they are. Express that kind of unconditional gratitude to your spouse and children as well.
You can help your kids learn to be generous by serving others who are less fortunate. Christmastime is ideal for service projects. Your family might volunteer to serve Christmas dinner at a local rescue mission or visit residents at a nursing home, singing carols and delivering Christmas cookies.
The majority of children receive a boatload of new toys each year. They soon lose interest in most of these toys, which wind up collecting dust in a closet, basement or storage bin. One family I know has instituted a Christmas tradition in which each of their kids chooses several of his or her old toys to donate to a homeless shelter or a local charity. They deliver the toys as a family the week before Christmas, so their children can see where their toys are being donated and experience the joy of giving away their possessions.
Christmas also provides an excellent opportunity to start sponsoring a poor child in a developing country through an organization such as World Vision or Compassion International. Our family sponsors a little girl in Indonesia. When our children are old enough, we plan to take a short-term missions trip to Java to meet her.
Finally, while your kids are still on vacation, set aside an afternoon for them to write handmade thank-you notes to the friends and relatives who gave them gifts. Even young children can participate by decorating simple cards with crayons, stickers and rubber stamps. Make this a family project, as you help your children learn to develop the "language of gratitude" through words and pictures.