When you read the letters in the New Testament, it becomes obvious a large part of the work of the early Church was helping those in poverty. The causes of the poverty may have varied, but the message was clear – Christians needed to show God’s love to the poor.
If you live in a city like Atlanta and are middle class, there is a very real chance your child has never really been exposed to poverty in a meaningful way. Even if you occasionally volunteer to help the poor, your child may only have the vaguest idea of what life is like on a daily basis for those living in poverty.
Actually, even the poor in the United States statistically live much better than the poor in other countries. Our children cannot begin to comprehend what children go through who don’t have access to clean water, education or medical care.
There is a way you can give your children a dose of empathy for the poor. It will require a little creativity on your part and possibly an ability to endure whining for an extended period of time. You may find though, that not only do your children have a new empathy for people living in poverty, but they may just appreciate the blessings they do have a little bit more.
The Toms company conducts a version of this activity every spring. They encourage everyone to spend the day barefoot. Having to watch where you walk and be potentially uncomfortable only gives people a very small dose of what most people who can’t afford shoes endure. Those people often live in countries where the lack of shoes may mean they are exposed to parasites and other unpleasant disease causing substances. Yet, middle class teens all over the country become passionate about shoes for others in part because they have had a little dose of reality brought to their world.
So what other things can your child do without for a day, that may deepen their empathy for others?
- Clean water from the tap. Declare your tap water “unclean” for the day. Teeth must be brushed with bottled water. Ice cannot be consumed. Showers must be taken very carefully so water doesn’t get in mouths or eyes. Want to have some real fun? Make them haul buckets of water from an outside faucet to fill the bath tub and add some heated water from the stove (Note: Only adults should handle hot water from the stove). Check the temperature carefully, but from previous lack of hot water heater experience, the bath will still be nice and cold!
- Electricity. Some of us have had this experience recently thanks to severe weather. If your home hasn’t lost electricity in a few years, you may want to ban electricity for a day (or two if you can stand it!). No lights may be turned on and no appliances may be used – even if they are charged.
- Variety and availability of food. (This is a one day experiment, only for healthy, older children.) Have your children subsist on beans and rice for one day – the primary foods in many areas of the world.
- Lots of clothes. Have your child reduce their wardrobe to two outfits and wear those for an entire week. Younger children will have no problem with this experiment, but teens will probably panic! Or perhaps your child must go without shoes for a day or wear clothing that doesn’t fit well.
- Transportation. If you live in an area where it is safe to walk, try living without a car for a couple of days. Adults who have had cars in the shop know how hard this can be, but often our children don’t realize the difficulty. If you have mass transit and don’t normally use it, try getting somewhere by the city bus. If you live in the suburbs, it can take hours to get somewhere you can get to in a few minutes by car.
You get the idea. For older children, you can make the experiment even more realistic. Give them a “salary” a minimum wage or entry level worker would make in a month. Challenge your child to “find” a place to live and “pay” for food and other necessities on their budget. What do they have to give up that they are used to having? What bothers them the most about living on that income?
Make sure at the end of your experiment(s) you spend time discussing the experience with your children. What was difficult? How would they cope if they had to live that way every day? How must someone who lives that way feel? What would showing them God’s love look like? What is the best way to help someone who has that need? Encourage research and reading books written by people who live in poverty or do significant work serving the poor.
End your experiment with a time of family prayer thanking God for His blessings and asking Him to help your family be more aware of people in poverty. Ask God to help your family share God’s love and His Words with those living in poverty. I would love to hear how your experiment went! Please share your experiences with us in a comment below.