Teaching Kids About Compassion

Jan Johnson

January 29, 2009

The volunteer coordinator at the inner-city rescue mission seemed stunned when I asked if my husband, two children, and I could serve at the "neighborhood picnic" on the Fourth of July after the Los Angeles riots. What could she do with an entire family? Finally, she decided we could join the college kids serving food.

As anyone might guess, our 11-and 12-year-old children worked harder that day than they've ever worked in our kitchen at home. They cleaned up spills and cooperated with each other (gasp!). I didn't growl when they accidentally splashed red punch on my white shirt. The four of us worked side by side, listening to guests' stories.

Since we usually mix fun with service, we had planned to take them out for a treat, but something better happened. The kitchen workers sat Jeff and Janae on stools and gave them tubs of ice cream to enjoy. It was a memorable day in the life of our family.

Sometimes we parents wonder how we can help our children grow into compassionate people in a self-absorbed culture. One of the best ways to help kids act as the hands and feet of Christ is by encouraging them to join us in our volunteer efforts. Consider how, by our examples, we already show our children how to shop, relax, and eat fast food. Doesn't it make sense that we would show them how to serve by serving alongside them?

But What Can Kids Do?

Here are some family-size opportunities to start with:

  • Help with kids. Help a church in your town that has a latchkey program. You and your kids can do simple things such as serve refreshments.
  • Serve a holiday dinner at a street mission. When our kids were preschoolers, our family served a Thanksgiving meal. The other volunteers not only didn't mind, but they gave our kids small tasks to do.
  • Bring a meal to a house-bound elderly person. You can do this through a program such as Meals-on-Wheels or by adopting a senior citizen in your church or neighborhood as a "grandparent."
  • Do construction or maintenance outdoor projects. Our family has joined a church-school group that was cleaning an elderly person's yard. Another time, we joined a Habitat for Humanity chapter repairing a home. (Some chapters let you bring children under sixteen.)
  • Visit a nursing home. Mary Price, a nurse and mother, prepared her children to do this by saying, "The nursing home will smell funny -- like medicine and cleaning products. It will smell of urine, too, because many of the people can't control bodily functions. When they need help with the bathroom, the workers can't always get there fast enough."

    Mary urged her children to pick out someone and try to talk to that person: "First, get down on their eye level so they don't have to bend back in the wheelchair. That's being respectful to them. Then introduce yourself. Even though they may not understand what's going on, they still need people to love them." Those words describe what family volunteering is about.

How to Make Family Volunteering Work

  • Find activities that are within the capabilities of all family members, especially if you're including preschoolers or grandparents. Or you may want to join another family in a project to make it more fun. How a family chooses to serve together will be as different as families are themselves.
  • Pray for the people you're going to serve with your children ahead of time. You could do that several times at a meal or bedtime before and after you serve. Let your kids see that your relationship with God motivates you to love others.
  • When you visit a nursing home, homeless shelter, or soup kitchen, develop friendships. We don't serve to simply "do good." When we served dinner at a street mission, we always carved out time for our kids to play with kids from the mission's neighborhood.

When Sharon Elliot saw that she had clothes and toys her two sons had outgrown, she asked her pastor if any families might benefit from them more than others would. The pastor pointed her to a family in need, but Sharon decided to form a relationship with them. "When we took [the clothes and toys] to this family, the mom and I sat and talked. The kids played together." Why didn't Sharon just drop the stuff on the porch and leave? "If I were in need, I'd like for the person to be friendly. I'd like to meet someone who could identify with me." What a great lesson to teach our kids!

Jan Johnson is the author of Growing Compassionate Kids, from which this article is adapted.

    © 2001 by Jan Johnson. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

    This article orignially ran in Pockets--a ministry of The Upper Room.

    Originally published January 29, 2009.