I was totally eavesdropping in the dressing room at Target when I heard a few other moms saying,
“My kids are so ungrateful. All they care about is their phones and their friends.”
“I wish my children understood that there is a world outside of their wants and needs.”
I found myself nodding my head and silently mouthing, “YES”.
I have experienced similar struggles with my own children and it really bothers me. As a culture, we are more connected to each other than ever before due to technological advances, and yet we feel more and more detached and isolated from people who are different than us. We are so busy, there is no time to attend to the needs of the world outside of our families. Even if we recognize this and want to help or change it, it seems impossible to find time or a place to volunteer that would include opportunities for whole families to participate.
The good news is that you don’t have to join the Peace Corp or spend your weekends doing charity work to mold the way your children’s hearts are wired toward human need. Here are 5 easy ways your household can swim against the “self absorption” tide, and develop compassion for the less fortunate or suffering in our midst every day.
1. Develop a “family mission”
There are underprivileged humans all around us every day. They stare out at us above hand scratched signs, slump tiredly on corners, fill food banks and assistance lines, and gather under overpasses. These are the obvious people who are suffering daily.
We want to help, but it can feel overwhelming.
There are less obvious others a little closer to home:
- Nursing homes with residents who have no visitors
- Single moms praying the rent check doesn’t bounce.
- Special needs children who need tender and gentle babysitters now and again.
- The neighbor kid who needs a smile and snack lobbed in his direction, no questions asked.
Deciding as a family what “compassion” looks like for you and how you want to put action to it, is the first step. Think about your passions and what moves your heart. Sometimes it can take a while to sort out, but seek a special opportunity that fits your family. Even as you think on it, you will find your awareness of people growing.
2. Begin to Notice.
When you see someone who is without a home or in need of something, notice them. Allow yourself to see them as someone’s daughter, son, brother, or sister. Allow yourself to assume the best. Resist any desire to make judgments. Just notice them and nothing more. Think about their feelings and thoughts. To simply acknowledge the value of someone as a human being, and in turn to allow ourselves to feel love and compassion costs us nothing. Speak to your children about the person you are noticing, respectfully and from a distance of course. Call their attention to the person in an age appropriate way, empathizing with the person’s feelings and maybe their thoughts. With our daughter, feeling words work best:
“He must be so hot and uncomfortable.”
“It must feel awful to not have a home that is warm and someone to take care of you.”
“Should we give him some water? Some food?”
Let the CHILDREN make the call on who you help. This empowers them to make decisions about the care of other people and gives them ownership. My daughter used to love to drive around during our errands and hand out breakfast sandwiches and water to people at traffic lights. She was only 2.5 or 3 at the time, but it made a permanent impact on her. It made the plight of others very real and immediate to her. This will serve her well in a world that seems to grow more detached and cold by the day.
This principal may be even MORE important in those every day encounters with others as well. If someone in a store seems sad, or a child is crying, or a Mom looks like she’s at the very end of her rope, stop and notice. Let your children SEE you being aware of someone else’s feelings and maybe reflect with them:
“She looks so sad, I wonder if she is having a really hard day.”
“He is struggling with big feelings (tantrum) right now. That’s so hard. We know how that feels don’t we?”
“What could we do to help?”
These short little conversations can have a long term impact on your children. We can teach our kids what matters by teaching them what to notice in their worlds: People, human experiences, love, and joy. They soak it all in, and we can make such a difference in their worldview with these tiny teachable moments.
3. Just do little things.
There are little things you can do as a family that don’t involve volunteering together somewhere, which can be challenging with very little kids. Alternatives that can involve your children or that they could even be in charge of might include…
Putting a large basket on your porch with a sign that says “donations” and then letting your neighbors know you are collecting needed items like blankets, sweatshirts, and mittens to be dropped with local charities.
You can make “Blessing Bags” with toiletries and essentials. They can be handed out to anyone you see who might need one. You can carry $5 fast food cards, bottled water and granola bars in your car to access quickly and pass to someone who is asking for that kind of help. When you do find someone to help, ask them their name if you can, and repeat it back when you say goodbye. Remember their name and talk about them with your children later. This communicates the importance of that person, and that they are worth remembering. This lesson will stick.
4. Don’t worry.
One of the biggest oppositions to helping people at traffic lights or corners is that they may misuse monetary gifts, or they may reject your resources all together. I challenge you to stop caring about that. Even if that person is less than genuine, it costs very little to give food or drink to someone, and these are basic human needs whether you are a “good person” or not. Even if the response you get is not what you want, it doesn’t matter. Remember the goal. The way you are modeling compassion, empathy and vulnerability will be imprinted in your kids and will stay with them their whole lives. Your noticing and responding to a need isn’t going to make a suffering person’s situation worse, but there is a strong chance that it will make it better, even if just for a day. That’s a message worth sending.
As a family, try to talk about people who are hurting from time to time. Talk about people around our country and the world and the problems they are having and dealing with on a daily basis. Don’t leave this great big world out of your conversations and family discussions. It can be so hard to step out of our lives in the middle of work and school and appointments and sports and birthday parties and commitments, but we can.
If we want to raise compassionate and grateful kids who are aware of the world around them, it can start in your car, as they, from their car-seats, watch you open your heart (and theirs) to the people you see who need help. That’s why I roll down my window, and I always will.