Incorporating service into her family life helped one mother teach her children the profound importance of helping one another
As parents negotiating our small children’s lives, many of us seek out books and information on how to not screw up our kids, tapping into the wisdom of more experienced adults who have lived through the trials of raising young humans in this complicated world and have come out on the other side with well-adjusted adults.
So, it was not surprising when a young father recently asked me for the ‘magic trick’ that will turn his own children into children resembling my two sons.
This young father, who has known my boys since they were young, has often remarked on how impressed he is with their maturity and moral compass.
I am not sure what he was expecting, because if I had the answer to that question, I would be a wealthy woman. But I assume he was expecting solutions like “stress structure,” “allow time for creative play,” and “teach manners and responsibility.” Although I believe each of these skills will indeed assist in the growth and maturity of any young person, my response of, “Get involved in community service” had him furrowing his brow with a look of skepticism. No magic here.
After a few moments, I continued: “The most important thing my husband and I did was to make community service a priority in your boys’ lives.”
I am not saying that we wanted to expose our children to those who have less than them to make them grateful, like the people who say, “finish your food because children are starving in Africa.” First of all, expressing this to children will probably not be well understood; it also fosters the idea that service is punishment for ‘rotten’ behavior. Secondly, that mindset is highly abusive and manipulative to those you are helping; those who need assistance aren’t your teaching tools — they are people humbly asking for help.
My children are the direct descendants of a family of ‘doers’. When we first moved to our small suburban town, my husband sought out an organization where he could donate his time. The local ELK’s Lodge provided him with an opportunity to raise money and awareness for charities and also build a network of friends. As soon as the boys were old enough, we would take them to serve cake and juice at the senior citizen picnics. The kids loved the attention they received from the elderly who saw them as the adorable kids they were. It didn’t hurt that many of the picnickers would give them quarters or dollars as a thank you.
From there, we tried the same approach with an organization helping the handicapped. Maybe this one was not as ‘fun’, but it did help my healthy boys to see that not everyone is the same. We never had to tell them to be kind to others in spite of their differences because for them, everyone who was kind to them received kindness in return.
And if they faced a person who wasn’t helpful or giving, we just reminded them that sometimes people have pain that you can’t see.
I don’t want you to think we only introduced our kids to the harsh realities of life, aging, and disabilities because they also spent many a Christmas season selling Christmas trees for charity. I can still see their smiling faces as our two little guys, bundled in snowsuits, helped to drag a six-foot tree to the car of a waiting family. Years later, without much persuasion, they still love the idea of bringing Christmas joy to people. This year, they introduced their girlfriends to the practice, neither of whom has ever done anything like this. Their joy was so palpable that I think this might become a new part of our family’s Thanksgiving traditions.
These unselfish lessons have taught my sons humility. They have incredible respect for the elderly and understand that it only takes a few moments to change someone’s day. They also learned that different is not less. To this day, my boys are the ones offering a hand or support to anyone who needs it. The most important lesson they learned was that they are fortunate for their family, home, and health, things that are not to be taken for granted.
We all have continued doing service, both in our communities and work environments. Recently one of my sons was tasked by his company to organize a fundraiser for Make a Wish. The other son regularly gives blood (he says he HAS to do it every eight weeks, because “if I don’t do it, I can’t expect others to help me when I need it”) and participated in Operation Christmas Child to collect boxes of presents to ship to orphanages.
I am currently involved in many projects to better my community and I often speak to groups of college students about the need for service. Their immediate response is always, “I don’t have the time.” Between job, family, school, and life, there are just not any more hours to give, but inevitably, once I start talking about the success stories and the very personal impact we have had on others’ lives, these students can’t wait to jump in. When you find something that you can devote X hours a week doing, you will be amazed by how the time makes itself available.
Community service has cognitive, social, and physiological benefits.
It is an integral part of religious traditions stretching back for centuries. There is a common thread through all religions (Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, etc.) that service is the way to a more vibrant, fulfilling spiritual life. In a recent study from the University of Nevada Reno, Molly Latham found that teens say the benefits received from volunteering include:
- Learning to respect others
- Learning to be helpful and kind
- Learning to understand people who are different
- Developing leadership skills
- Becoming more patient
- Acquiring a better understanding of citizenship
Service helps both the giver and receiver; this is not a new idea. The recently passed Ram Dass, a psychology professor-turned-spiritual teacher, explains this beautifully:
“Helping out is not some special skill. It is not the domain of rare individuals. It is not confined to a single part of our lives. We heed the call of that natural impulse within and follow it where it leads us.”
But to be clear, service is not something you should do because you want accolades. Without a doubt, much good comes from putting yourself second for a few moments, but for me, the reason to get my family involved in service is that I now have good human beings. And let’s be honest, isn’t that what we want most for our children?
As Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that… Haters cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We need to show our children how to be that light that will lead to a brighter future.
You may also enjoy reading The C4 Way: Empowering Youth to be Their Best Selves, by Joy McManigal.