Teaching Kids to Serve With Discernment

How do we prepare our kids to be “shrewd as serpents, and harmless as doves” when they serve? How do we teach them to discern how to give and serve with widsom?

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.

Teaching Smart Servanthood

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:

  1. Point them to Scripture. The Bible is the only place to get the comprehensive instructions every smart servant needs. No text is better for equipping us to do God’s work and showing us how to follow in his ways (II Timothy 3:16-17). Additional wisdom is also available for the asking (James 1:5).
  2. Help them discover and develop their interests. Ask which organizations, groups or causes interest your child, and why. Research service organizations with them: Who do they help and how do they spend their donations? Visit local charities to see how they operate.
  3. Encourage thoughtful decision-making. Allow kids to make smaller day-to-day decisions. This builds their confidence, and confident children, research shows, are less likely to be targets of predators.Jones, Preston, and Joyce Jackson. “Teaching Your Child Safety in Today’s World Just Got Easier.” Keeping Kids Safe. 30 July 2008 Ask kids what they know about the person or organization they want to help. The Bible tells us a tree is identified as good or bad by the type of fruit it produces (Matthew 12:33); the same can be said for groups and individuals.
  4. Point to examples. Identify the characters in books or TV shows, and discuss the positive and negative decisions these people make. Ask children who their heroes are, and why. Introduce them to noted humanitarians and other positive role models in their church or community.
  5. Learn about the job. Before — and during — your child’s volunteer stint, learn what his responsibilities are and who he’s working with. It may be wise to suggest group projects. If kids work alongside their families, friends, youth group or service club, they’re less likely to find themselves in situations where someone can take advantage of their money or kindness.

Serving Safely

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:

  • Always let parents know where you’re going.
  • Have a safe place to run if necessary.
  • Keep your eyes open for things that don’t look or feel right.
  • Stick with others, such as a group of friends.

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.”Allen, Earnest E. “Keeping Children Safe: Rhetoric and Reality.” Juvenile Justice Journal V (1998).

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:

  • Know your name, address and phone number by heart.
  • Never keep secrets from mom and dad, and beware of any adult who asks you to.
  • Never go anywhere or take anything from someone you don’t know.
  • Everybody’s bathing suit areas are private.
  • It’s not your fault if someone touches you in a weird or uncomfortable way. Be sure to tell someone if this happens!Fitzgerald, Pattie. “The Super Ten Play-It-Safe Rules for Kids and Grown-ups.” Safely Ever After, Inc. 30 July 2008

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.”Manning, Brennan. Abba’s Child : The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. New York: NavPress Group, 2002.

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