Given the current situation in America, with protests calling for social justice reforms, there is a real need for change. In an age of selfies, “look at me” social media, and an all-about-me mentality, teaching the next generation about empathy for others can be a real challenge. By their very nature, children are self-centered – an innate self-preservation tool that makes them seldom aware of their surroundings or the needs of others. It is up to adults to model and teach children how to love others as Jesus did through empathy and a genuine desire to want to help.
Derek McCloud, the sixth-grade Bible teacher at Mount Paran Christian School, suggests parents start by helping children exercise their “gratitude” muscle. Creating awareness about the many blessings your child has been given can open young minds to the realization that things like shelter, food, and freedoms are indeed blessings and not guaranteed.
Developing a thankful heart goes a long way in building humility and appreciation. This is especially helpful in trying times as in Philippians 4:6. Consider a gratitude journal, for instance, to reflect on at least one blessing each day during a time of prayer. Reviewing the journal periodically will help children to become more aware of what they have been given.
Even the youngest of children understand the basic concept of equity, wanting to make sure that everyone has the same number of cookies or gets the same amount of TV or video game time. By extending the lesson in gratitude, parents can expand on the concept of fairness and help children become more generous. Being generous is not just about how much money a family donates to a cause. It’s about creating hearts that want to share with others. To reach this goal, families could implement several tactics.
1. Family Service Projects. Working together in service to others shows children how to serve, with parents leading by example. Find a project that the whole family is interested in supporting and in which everyone can contribute. For instance, purchasing toiletries and snacks and then assembling blessing bags to give to those in need is easy for even the youngest of children. Kids can write special notes or draw pictures to put in the bags. The blessing bags can be given directly by your family when you see someone in need, or you can donate them to a charitable organization for distribution, such as MPCS ministry partner MUST Ministries.
2. Give, Spend, Save. Building a money box can help kids begin to think about being altruistic with money. Let kids decorate a shoebox, and then divide the interior into special compartments, allocating space for money to spend, money to save, and money to give to charity or church. If a child chooses to make a donation to a charity, consider matching their gift, if able, to encourage further excitement over being generous. And, parents should consider informing children of the charities parents give to. The amount donated is less important than the spirit in which the gift is given (Matthew 12: 41-44). When parents tell or show children that they give fiscal support, parents model generosity and create awareness about nonprofit groups that help others.
3. Birthday Fun. Consider asking for donations to a charity instead of birthday gifts from friends. Or, perhaps an activity at the next (post-social distancing) birthday party could be a service project, such as filling toy boxes for children entering foster care through the Wednesday’s Child program.
4. Be Enthusiastic About Interests. When children approach their parents with an idea, such as a desire to run a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research, support and encourage their enthusiasm. Children learn that what they do matters in this world. Their efforts may even grow beyond the initial vision, such as the now nationwide Alex’s Lemonade Stand charity. It’s even better when children’s interests are intertwined with a way to help others. Into fashion? Learn to sew and make fabric masks for first responders. Love the arts? Make cards for nursing home residents.
After teaching children to have grateful, generous hearts, the hard work begins. Helping children to develop empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is a real challenge and is crucial in the development of Christian compassion and moral responsibility. Parents can help their young children explore what it means to give back to others through a variety of media resources. The Heroes for Young Readers book series illustrates servant-leadership and can help children open their minds to the world outside themselves. For hard-to-tackle topics, such as social justice and racism, many media resources are available, such as the Focus on the Family broadcast (downloadable app).
For older children, hearing the stories of those whose experiences are different than our own, witnessing the raw emotion first-hand, is eye-opening and compels Christians to act. Consider this conversation between pastors Steven Furtick and John Gray about building bridges between communities. When guiding tweens and teens in tough conversations about the wrongs of the world, it's important that they learn to truly listen to others who may be different than them, or who are experiencing struggles. Teach kids to think about putting themselves in others' shoes, giving them more clarity about what they could say or do to help anyone in need.
Overcoming human nature’s selfish desires is a struggle. Instilling a moral compass for injustice and a "be the helper" mentality takes intentional time and development in children. For parents who are willing to put in the work to teach gratitude, show generosity, and model empathy, the results will be not only life-changing for children, but culture-shifting for our society.