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