Tomorrow we embark on another service project with the kids and I just wanted to take a second to talk about why we do these things and how we use them to reinforce our commitment to serving others as a family.

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So, serving with kids. It is not for the faint of heart. I don’t mean that it is awful or bad or even a not fun experience. BUT, you have to set your expectations accordingly. If you think your kids are going to show up and be so thankful you’ve showed them how to serve others and forget themselves and their selfish desires for an afternoon, well, you’re gonna be pretty disappointed. I know I was.

But that’s okay. Because this is a skill that is developed over time. Self-sacrifice is not an instinctual skill.

The key is consistency. Keep serving. Keep working. Help them keep focusing on something other than themselves.

Here are five ways we make serving with kids a positive experience.

  1. Talk about who you are serving. Let them see how similar they are to the people they are out there helping. We serve two motels where many children live with their parents. It is so beneficial to our kids to talk and play with these kids so they can see that the people we are serving are the same as they are. People are people. And showing kids that those who need help aren’t some distant “other” and are people like them is really important.
  2. Prepare as a family. Serving isn’t just about taking kids down into the city and exposing them to the people who have needs that need to be met by others. We prepare as a family for our trip. We pray together for those we are serving, we pack bags with friends who we serve with, and we talk about the best ways to give others respect and dignity as we serve them.
  3. Let them know they are safe. We make sure our kids know they are safe in the areas we serve in AND that they are safe to ask us any questions they may have about the people and places we serve. Yes, sometimes their questions are not politically correct or easy to answer. Yes, sometimes it means telling them things about this world that are hard to admit. But, giving them a safe place to do so is incredibly important. We don’t shame them for their lack of understanding of certain social issues or for their politically incorrect way of asking the specifics of a situation. As long as they ask us privately (away from those we are serving) and with respect we encourage all discussion of the who, what, where, & why of serving.
  4. Give them a break. When we serve we are in town for 4+ hours at a time. That’s a big stretch for little kids. Our older girls (11 & 13) are able to handle it but the younger ones (8, 6, & 3) need breaks. LOTS of them. We pack snacks. We let them watch DVDs in the car at certain stops where logistics make it less than ideal for them to get out and serve. Bottom line, we have realistic expectations of them. We respect who they are and what they are capable of.
  5. Debrief. When we served on our family mission trip in Kentucky we learned that debriefing is an important part of service. Processing what you’ve seen, heard, and (let’s be honest) smelled is an important part of learning about what you’ve done and how you can do more in the future. Give them, and yourself, the chance to understand all you’ve been a part of and give the grace that is needed to process the experience.

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Doing these things help to make the experience better for everyone involved. Kids are still learning how to care for others. Some adults are, too. It’s not easy. Do I bristle every time  Trav (8) tells me how boring it is to serve meals to the homeless? YES. Every. Single. Time. But I keep exposing him to it. Keep exposing him to the needs of others. I encourage him to meet those needs with us and to pray for the men and women and children we serve. Is it perfect? No way. Do my children turn into mini Mother Theresa’s when serve? Nope. But their capacity for compassion grows. They see the needs of others and their ability to help be a part of meeting those needs. They are transported out of their narrow point of view and into a more global perspective for a few hours a month. Everyone grows. Everyone learns. Everyone finds themselves capable of more love than they knew possible.