I'll never forget the day my 3-year-old son, Hudson, learned what an orphan was. A family friend had just returned from Haiti, where she had visited an orphanage. While there, she'd taken heartbreaking photos.
Wide-eyed Hudson stared at the pictures of the forlorn and sickly kids and asked, "Who those kids? Why they sad?"
I explained that the children in the photos were orphans.
"What's an orphan?" he asked.
"An orphan is a child who doesn't have a mommy or daddy to take care of him," I said.
Hudson said nothing. At 3, it had never occurred to him that somewhere in the world children didn't have parents looking after them.
"What if you didn't have a mommy or daddy to take care of you?" I asked. "How would you feel?"
As he grappled with the concept, I watched his face contort in anguish. He was feeling genuine empathy for these orphans.
A few days later, Hudson came bounding down the stairs and told my husband, Eric, and me that he needed to show us something. We walked upstairs with him and discovered that he had created "orphan beds" all around us. Each bed consisted of a blanket, a pillow and one of his favorite stuffed animals. He had placed two orphan beds in Mommy and Daddy's room, one or two in the hallway, a couple in our daughter's room and about five in his bedroom.
That experience showed me that it's never too early to encourage children to show empathy toward others. Helping my kids ask, "What if I were in their shoes?" has proven to be an excellent way to teach them the biblical principle of selflessness described in 1 Corinthians 10:24: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor." And when we help them turn outward and show empathy, we give them something far greater than a new toy or trip to Disneyland — we give them the amazing joy of sacrificial love.
The right what-ifs
My 5-year-old daughter sometimes gets ignored when her older siblings play together. When I notice this happening, I gently challenge my older kids: "What if you were the one being left out? How would that make you feel?"
Instead of merely correcting their behavior, I try to use these scenarios to remind them to treat their sister the way they would want to be treated, just as Jesus encouraged us in Matthew 7:12: "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."
I also like to tell them stories from my own life when I chose to show empathy. They love hearing about the time I befriended a lonely girl in my third-grade class, after my mom encouraged me to put myself in her shoes. Years afterward, the girl wrote me a letter expressing how much that simple act of empathy had changed her life. After hearing that story, my kids went on the lookout at school and church for children who might feel left out and in need of a friend.
When I frequently remind them of the joy that comes from turning outward, it helps them make the switch from asking, "What if I don't get what I want?" to "What if I were in the other person's shoes?"
Recently, my husband shared a true story with our children about two men imprisoned for their faith in a country that persecutes Christians. The men were in a freezing cell, each with only a thin blanket to provide comfort. As one of the men looked at his shivering companion, the question came into his mind, What if that man were Jesus? Would I give Him my blanket? Even though he was shaking with cold, the man chose to wrap his blanket around his friend's shoulders.
That powerful testimony inspired our family to start asking, "What if that were Jesus?" in our daily interactions with others. When I notice any of my children acting selfishly toward another person (usually a sibling), I remind them of the blanket story and ask, "What if that were Jesus? Would you share your toy with Him? Would you let Him go first?"
When my children selflessly serve others, they are really serving Jesus — as He reminds us in Matthew 25:40: "I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Armed with that understanding, I motivate them to choose sacrificial love over selfishness.
This principle has impacted our children in small and big ways. A few years after Hudson created the "orphan beds," my husband and I heard about two babies in Haiti who needed a loving home. After praying about it, we felt compelled to adopt them, but we wanted it to be a family decision. We gathered the kids in the living room, explained the situation and invited them to share their thoughts. At first they were excited about having a new brother and sister. Yet when we told them that they would each have to make some sacrifices, they grappled with the fact that they would have to share their toys, food, home, and Mom and Dad with two more children.
Hudson spoke up. "If any of us were born without a mom or dad, we'd want someone to love and take care of us." I smiled as I realized he'd learned that empathy four years earlier when he wrestled with his own orphan what-if question.
Our children imagined what it would be like not to have a family and how scared and lonely they would feel. They became burdened for the two Haitian children, whom they'd never met, and genuinely desired to help them. Even though it would mean making sacrifices, they decided to show Jesus' love by welcoming these kids into our family. Today, the two Haitian children are their siblings.
The wrong what-ifs
While the right kind of what-ifs can help our kids turn outward and put others first, the wrong kind of what-ifs can turn them inward and paralyze them with worry or fear. If a child continually wonders, What if something bad happens to me? she will not be able to thrive in the here and now; she will find it difficult to consider others' needs above her own because she is too preoccupied with her own worries. As parents, how can we help our children replace the wrong what-ifs with the right ones?
Our 7-year-old daughter, Harper, was born without fingers. She also has a sensitive personality and can easily become consumed with what others think about her. Encouraging Harper to develop empathy toward others has been critical in helping her overcome insecurity. When Harper goes into a new situation asking, "What if they laugh at me or make fun of me?" she becomes withdrawn and self-conscious. But when my husband and I encourage her to ask different questions, such as, "What if the people I'm about to meet need to know Jesus' love?" the outcome is different. For Harper, replacing the wrong what-ifs with the right ones can change a potentially miserable social experience into a positive, healthy one.
Celebrating God's faithfulness is another excellent way to help our children replace the wrong kind of what-ifs with the right ones. While we shouldn't give our kids the false idea that nothing negative or challenging will ever happen to them, neither should we diminish their childlike trust in God's protection, peace and enabling grace. The reality is that God knows the number of hairs on their heads and cares about them more than they can fathom; His faithfulness is beyond our comprehension. Getting our kids excited about these truths can go a long way toward overcoming the temptation to dwell upon fearful what-ifs.
Abbie, a mother of four, told me, "One of the best ways I've found to help my little ones rejoice in God's faithfulness is to tell them how He has been faithful in my own life and how I have seen Him be true to His Word."
With my kids, I also remind them of their great-grandmother's secret to conquering the fearful what-ifs: Whenever she was feeling down because of a challenging circumstance, she chose to find someone who was far worse off than she was and serve that person in some practical way. Every time she did this, she discovered the unmatched joy and fulfillment of turning outward.
Last year, Hudson and some of his friends began visiting elderly patients at our local nursing home. As he experienced the joy of showing kindness to someone in need, visiting the nursing home became the highlight of his week.
The best what-ifs
By helping our kids embrace the right kind of what-ifs and resist the wrong ones, we can prevent both worry and selfishness from taking up residence in our children's hearts and hindering them from the outward-focused life that God has called them to live.
My 6-year-old son, Kipling, recently learned that in some countries Christians are not allowed to hold church meetings, so they meet secretly in underground churches to avoid being arrested or mistreated. Kipling used to dream about growing up and building theme parks, but after hearing about persecuted Christians, his vision changed.
As I was tucking him into bed one night, he pulled out a diagram that he'd drawn of a church building underneath the ground.
"What if we couldn't go to church?" he asked me. "When I grow up, I'm gonna go to North Korea and build a secret under-the-ground church for the Christians there so that they can go to church and not get caught." Though Kip still has a few important facts to learn about what an "underground church" really is, I find it encouraging to see him gain an outward focus as he dreams about his future.
The what-ifs don't have to stop there. As my kids consider the what-ifs of others, they may turn their what-if ideas toward God: What if God is eager and willing to give us everything we need to help us become all that He desires us to be?
Now that's an exciting what-if.Leslie Ludy is the author of Set-Apart Motherhood.