One of the more discouraging events of my Christian life occurred shortly after my baptism. I was young, enthusiastic and wanted to start serving the Lord immediately. I asked one of the leaders of the church what I could do and was told I was “too young” to help. Thankfully a more understanding adult overheard the conversation and quickly found a responsibility I could take on at church.
In our desire to help our children enjoy their childhood, I think we have often lost sight of the fact that children want to help. Although they may complain about cleaning their rooms, the idea of being responsible for something important will put a light in almost any child’s eyes.
Part of raising our children to be godly servants is teaching them their purpose in life. A simple way to express the concept to young children is to teach them we are here to glorify or worship God. We are also here to help other people and teach them about God. Start introducing your child to the greatest commandments given by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31. There is even a great song my daughter loves that puts the words to a do-wop tune. These verses are definitely ones you want to imprint on your child’s heart.
The best way to help imprint scripture on your child’s heart is to help them live it every day. My daughter got tickled the other day when she heard about a movement which encouraged people to do something for someone else or volunteer one day a year. She thought everyone did something for someone else practically every day of the year. Because of the way we have lived our lives, her expectation for herself is to constantly be finding ways to help other people.
Parents often asked me how our daughter came to have such a servant heart. I am sure some of them assume she was “just born that way”. To an extent, I think they are right. Most very small children who are raised in a loving environment are very loving themselves. The problem is that when they offer to help, many times they are told “no”. The adult often has good intentions when rebuffing the child’s attempts to help. Over time though, the child ceases to even offer. If they live in a home where everything is done for them, they may even become very selfish.
We started our daughter helping and serving as soon as she could walk. We have photos of her barely over a year old putting the clothes in the dryer for me and shutting it. Did it take me five times as long to load the dryer? At least! It was worth every extra minute. It taught her she could help me. It gave her what I would call authentic self esteem. I noticed over time, she began to look for other ways she could help me. As her world expanded she also saw ways to help others.
There are dozens of ideal service projects for very young children. Many of these you may have to create and carry out yourself. A number of organizations will no longer allow young children (or even older ones) to help. They will cite liability issues, but many will privately tell you they have had too many children who caused more destruction than the little help they may have given. They are not allowed to let well behaved children volunteer and not admit less well behaved children.
We found a few basic elements help make a service project successful for children. First it is important they are involved in the planning on an age appropriate basis. For a toddler, the extent of their planning might be which vegetable we should donate or what color the poster should be. A pre-teen can practically plan a large project by herself if your family has done enough of them over the years. Helping to plan the project helps give your child ownership of it. It also teaches her practical skills she will use many times in her life.
The one forgotten element is to make the project fun. Depending upon the project, you may create special fun t-shirts to wear or have “bouncy” loud music playing while you work. Even the most boring of projects can be made fun if you put a little thought into it. Some people have the misconception service work has to be miserable or you don’t learn anything. I think you can work even harder in an environment that is fun and relaxed but earnest and goal oriented.
If at all possible, have your child interact with the recipient of the service. Last summer my daughter’s youth group served at a children’s home. The small group of girls I chaperoned had a deeper experience on the trip because I made sure they took one of the children around with them all day at the zoo. They got to know her and her story. The service they had been doing all week took on a new meaning for them. It had a purpose of helping someone they had met and grown to love over the course of the day.
Finally, after the experience, talk about what happened with your child. This is an important step I learned from leading a Girl Scout troop. To really become a meaningful experience, your child needs to process what happened. My daughter is naturally very analytical and often initiates this herself. Other children, who may not be as introspective, will need more help with the process. Casually talk about what happened, what you saw, how you felt and most importantly what you learned. It is important to help him discover what lessons he learned during the project. Although no project is perfect, it will help teach your child how to analyze his work and seek to do an even more effective job the next time. I will even give you bonus parent points (wouldn’t that be great – you could redeem them the next time you make a parenting mistake!) if you can tie in something that happened to a Bible lesson!
If you need ideas for projects, there are several books I search through regularly for new ideas. (They are not all “religious” in nature, so you may not approve of some of the projects. I personally find they have more than enough ideas to make them useful reference books.) The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects by Barbara Lewis, Generation Change by Zach Hunter, and for a more academic approach, Enriching the Curriculum Through Service Learning edited by Carol Kinsley and Kate McPherson are the three I refer to the most often. If you have older children, you can google Bronze, Silver or Gold Award Girl Scout project ideas. There are probably dozens of lists of great projects which would also make good family projects.
Have fun while teaching your child how to serve others. Try to make it a part of your daily life by sending cards to the sick or helping someone who is struggling with too many packages. Comment below with the favorite projects you have done with your family. I would love to hear what you are doing. With your permission, we may even start our own list of service projects on this website using the best of your ideas!