I try to be an intentional parent. It doesn't always work out because, let's face it: being a parent is SO HARD.
Prior to becoming a mom, I spent seven years teaching English to high school students. It was an overwhelming job, but parenting is a new level of overload. The responsibility of a parent is immeasureable. I will help shape my kids' religious beliefs, teach them how to treat others, teach them how and what to eat, help them develop habits, and a work ethic.
My husband and I experienced a difficult six year season of infertility before we decided to pursue foster-adoption. These six years gave us PLENTY of time to talk about what we wanted our family's priorities to be. Over the years we've come to agree on a few core desires for our kids. One of these is service. We want our kids to understand the value and necessity of helping others because we think it will make them better humans.
Our kids came to us through foster-adoption when they were four and five, so we couldn’t inculcate them with service from the time they were toddlers. However, when they moved in we started teaching them about service in a few practical ways.
First, we choose to talk with our kids about the world and current events. Writer and humanitarian Bob Goff explains in his book "Love Does," that he and his wife talk with their kids about major news items so that their kids hear it from them first. This allows parents some sort of control in how we present tough issues to our kids.
We've shown our kids pictures of refugee children in Europe stuffed on rafts using the sea as an escape route. We've bought them maps and atlases to study together so our kids begin to have an understanding of the just how big and diverse the world is. We’ve watched videos about families living in war-torn countries. We give them age-appropriate descriptions of the presidential election, the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, the horrific mass shootings in our own country, racism.
These conversations haven't been easy. Our kids have cried at the tragedies in the world and have asked tough questions. Often, I've doubted our decision to be honest with them, and I wonder if I’m just destroying their innocence.
But I've discovered that when my kids learn about the world around them, they want to help. They ask the question we all should be asking: “What can we do?” And when they ask these questions, we brainstorm as a family some real and practical ways to do our part.
The great thing about kids is that the world is still black and white for them. When someone needs help, we often see kids leading the charge. Adults have more life experience, and more cynicism. Watching my kids respond to current events with a desire to help has taken the edge off of my own cynicism and hopelessness.
We seek opportunities to serve as a family. Each season of a family’s life will dictate how involved they can be with volunteering. When our kids were younger and still adjusting to our home prior to their adoptions, we couldn't go out and volunteer in our community. We shopped for items needed by local non-profits and made donations. Our kids love picking out presents for other kids. Cleaning out and donating our own things helped us not feel so attached to our stuff.
My husband and I tried to be role models. We foster children, and provide respite opportunities to other foster families. We're are all in a position to model acts of service for our kids. Whatever you choose, make sure your kids see you helping others.
Now that our kids are older (both are seven), our family practice of serving has evolved. We want our kids to engage with people and organizations so they can play a more significant role in solving problems and helping. We work with our local United Way to find opportunities to serve our community. Our kids are now capable of helping organize a donation room, helping prepare a meal, cleaning, and helping to provide basic child care.
Consistently serving as a family once a month has helped us to make it a habit. And serving has significant positive outcomes for kids. The non-profit Doing Good Together claims, “Those who practice empathy, help others, and give back to their communities as children also show a lifelong commitment to service and justice. Studies show that adults who volunteered with their families as kids are three times more likely to be involved in community service compared to adults who didn’t."
I see my children offering to help friends and family, and they rarely complain about doing chores or tasks for others. They enjoy helping, and they feel pride in the work they do.
A habit of service doesn't have to be huge, but its impact certainly will be.