“A generous person will prosper;
whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)
Raising Socially Conscious Children
When our children were little, all under five years old, our nuclear family was no different from most American families in many ways. We had worked hard, prized our possessions and enjoyed our hard-earned vacations. Our children were loved and cherished by extended family members, and Christmas was traditionally a time of squealing and delight for them as they opened up all of the wonderful presents they received.
Although Tom and I both had solid jobs which allowed us to live comfortably, we worked hard to prevent our children from becoming ‘spoiled’ or losing their appreciation for the value of things.
Despite our relative financial comfort, however, over the years I somehow developed a ‘poverty mentality.’ This caused me not only to hang onto absolutely everything we had. It also caused me to accept whatever people offered me in case I might need it someday.
Overwhelmed With Stuff
Our first baby, Alex, quite literally had about 25 pairs of baby jeans sized 3-6 months. I couldn’t even open the drawer to get at all of them. I couldn’t close it either, for that matter. I just used the few pairs of pants that were on the top of the pile, replacing them back onto the top when they were clean. At most, I’m confident I used less than half a dozen of them. However, somehow I found security in knowing that if I needed more, they were there.
Translate that to three babies and a lifetime worth of accumulations. One can imagine the towering stacks of ‘stuff’ in our basement. We had countless full storage bins ready ‘just in case’ we had more children or ever needed the bins’ contents for any reason.
How Our Kids Learned (and Taught Us) to Let Go of Stuff
Shortly after Gabriel was born, Tom and I took a missions survey trip to Bogota. We were trying to discern whether or not we felt that God was calling us to ‘give everything up’ and serve Him full-time as missionaries to children at risk in Colombia.
Wanting to bless the children’s center we were visiting on that trip, we decided to bring along several duffle bags full of some of our extra children’s clothing. We tried to include our three small children in the ‘giving’ process. We asked if there were any toys they wanted to donate to the poor children in Colombia. Many of these poor kids had likely never even had a toy of their own.
It was January of 2007. Abby, then two years old, had just gotten a very special doll from her grandma for Christmas. She named her ‘Eve’. Abby and the doll were inseparable. I still get overwhelmed with emotion when I remember how Abby went straight to her room. She picked up Eve and made sure she had some traveling clothes to go along with her. She kissed Eve goodbye and put her in the duffle bag.
Giving Is Forever
I looked at Tom incredulously. He nodded to me, pressing a finger over his lips. He knew this was an important step for Abby to take. “Abby,” I recall saying, “you know that you’ll never get Eve back again, don’t you? You’ll never see her again. Are you sure you want to give her away?”
Abby, with the characteristic generosity that has become such a part of who she is, answered in her sweet little two-year-old voice. “It’s OK, Mommy. I know I can get another doll some time. But these little kids don’t have any toys. I want another little girl to have a doll of her own.” And with that, she skipped off to play with something else. The boys put some of their favorite toy dinosaurs in the bag. Then it was zipped and set by the door.
I must confess that later in the evening when everyone was asleep I unzipped the bag, took Eve out and hid her in the back of my closet. Nobody would ever know, I reasoned, until someday when Abby regretted having given little Eve away. I would then save the day (and avoid years of therapy) by resurrecting her from the closet.
Obviously, God was still working on my generosity at that time. It didn’t take long for me to guiltily slink to the closet, pick up Eve and slip her back into the bag. Not without tears in my eyes, mind you, but also with a strange sort of relief. Somewhere, in the midst of all of these toys and all of this STUFF, despite my tendency to hoard and gather things, our children had learned that it truly is better to give than to receive.
Now there we were, several years later, having decided to move to Colombia to work as full-time missionaries. Whatever were we going to do with all of that overflowing STUFF in our basement? This was either going to be really hard or extremely liberating, I reasoned to myself.
Taking the Plunge
We took the plunge, and fortunately, it turned out to be extremely liberating. Even the kids caught on! There was something so freeing about taking carload after carload of things we really didn’t need to Goodwill. At the same time, we watched the towering piles of STUFF in our basement getting progressively smaller.
When we finally moved, we took just ten suitcases amongst the five of us. These housed our homeschooling books and resources, a few favorite toys, and some basic living essentials like spoons and towels. There were a few special items for remembrance and a few pairs of warm weather clothes for each person. Most of the rest of our things had either been given away to friends or dropped off at Goodwill.
I think sometimes we are at risk of passing on our materialism to our children without ever meaning to do so. After all, it was ‘out of love’ that I was going to take that doll out of the suitcase for Abby. But what would that have taught her? I believe it would have shown her material goods are to be prized over sacrifice and generosity.
Obviously, that is not the lesson I wanted her to learn, but fortunately or unfortunately, children learn much better from observing what we DO than from listening to what we SAY.
Appreciating What We Have
Since our arrival in Colombia, our children have helped out regularly at the children’s center where for seven years we served 220 disadvantaged children in a hard-hit sector of Medellin. Our children came into daily contact with other kids who literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Those clothes were often worn out and ragged.
These same children often sleep in small, musty bedrooms about 5 feet wide by 8 feet long. They share the dingy room with their mother and other siblings, sometimes numbering six or more. Their roofs leak when it rains. Their ’toys’ are torn scraps of paper, discarded plastic bottles or other pieces of garbage they find lying around them. Many of these children are grossly understimulated, but they have learned to be content with whatever is given to them.
After helping out at the center, our kids would return home. They would look at the few toys they’d been able to bring to Colombia, and feel ‘rich’, knowing that they had many more toys than the poor kids we work with.
The Joy of Helping Others
Our children have also learned that giving and serving is often tiring and sometimes frustrating. However, it is usually extremely rewarding as well. They have learned the value and joy of helping others. Giving of their time, energy, and talents has left them feeling fulfilled deep inside.
Raising socially conscious children in a materialistic world doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. For example, the Hoeppner family of Waukesha, Wisconsin decided to run a home-based operation to raise funds to feed the children at our center. The family’s lemonade stand was a great success. Their kids had a blast, the neighbors pitched in, and children in Colombia were fed. In addition, everybody was reminded of how good it feels to give to others.
Another example is Jolisa Vasquez of Milwaukee, who sold homemade ornaments to benefit our center and another charity as well. The funds she raised helped to pay for much-needed paint supplies that were used during our winter break at the children’s center.
Getting Started: Needs Versus Wants
So, how do we begin teaching our children social consciousness? First of all, I believe that children need to learn the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. For example, we all have the basic needs of food, water, protection from the elements and physical safety.
But what about the middle-schooler who is getting picked on at school because she’s not wearing the ‘right’ brand of jeans? Or the child who loves collecting comic books and just can’t wait until the next one comes out?
Those are understandable ‘wants’, but they are just that – ‘wants’, and not ‘needs’. In order to help your children learn the difference, you might share stories from children around the world who are literally dying due to lack of any of these basic ‘needs’ which your child receives without a second thought.
Volunteering serves a wonderful purpose in our children lives. It teaches us that giving while expecting nothing in return is incredibly satisfying, possibly even more so than ‘getting’.
I recall several years ago when my son Alex made a beautiful wooden American Girl Doll bed for Abby for Christmas. He received several wonderful gifts of his own that day. However, he was most excited about the gift he gave Abby. Having long since forgotten what he received for Christmas that year, to this day he recalls with fondness and pride the beautiful work of art that sits in her dollhouse.
Earning Versus Entitlement
When Abby was seven she had a little friend we’ll call Anna. Anna’s mom invited Abby to go to a movie with them. Afterward, they stopped at a restaurant in the mall to enjoy a burger and fries. The girls sat at a table while the mom bought everybody a nice meal.
Abby was thrilled. In our family, we rarely eat out at restaurants. Anna, however, threw an adult-sized fit. She refused to eat her food because it had ketchup on it, and she HATED ketchup. In the end, Abby happily ate both girls’ meals.
I believe that many parents don’t even know how it happened, but suddenly their children are ‘expecting’ what was once a special treat or surprise.
Avoid Creating a Spoiled Child
Having a spoiled child is not only hard on parents and siblings. It’s also hard on anybody who happens to have to interact with the child. It is of the utmost importance to teach your children that the best things in life are earned. Life is, simply put, hard work. That’s the way it’s been ever since the Fall of Man. I daresay that to some extent we as humans really do need to work.
Consider the executive who retires at age 70, only to find himself suddenly lost and without purpose. That very same person, however, would likely find great fulfillment in tutoring a younger person in their area of expertise, thus investing in the next generation.
We need to be very careful not to just give our kids whatever they ask for. Anna, whose parents are both busy professionals, doesn’t have a lot of one-on-one time with her parents. Instead, they tend to give in to her every latest whim and desire. Anna discards the newest item a few days later after the novelty has worn off.
Robbing The Joy of Giving
An example of this is when Anna was at our house playing with Abby’s American Girl dolls. She began to whine about not having one. Abby saved her money and searched the internet for the pretties used American Girl doll she could find. Abby had it shipped all the way from the United States to Colombia, bought with her own hard-earned money.
The afternoon that it arrived, Abby waited all day for Anna to get home from school, and then excitedly presented her the doll. What she received in return were a scowl and a whine. “Why didn’t you give me SAIGE?!” Anna complained. With that, she took the doll and the beautiful (and costly) outfit that went with it and stomped away. A bewildered Abby came back into the house alone and in tears, the joy of giving gone.
The situation did finally ‘fix itself’, as I’d thought it might. A few weeks later Abby asked if Anna wanted to play American Girl Dolls. Her friend replied that she didn’t like them anymore. In fact, she didn’t even know where the doll was! Abby encouraged her to look. When they found it, Abby suggested Anna might want to return it so Abby could play with it. She carelessly flung it to Abby, who spent the next several days painstakingly cleaning the marker off the doll’s face, hair and nails, and loving her back to life.
How do we avoid allowing our child to end up like Anna? My suggestion is to have your child work hard around the house. You could pay them for extra work done. You might also help them find odd jobs in the neighborhood. This will help them appreciate the value of their now-hard-earned money.
That leads us to the final subject of this blog post: Responsibility. Here in Colombia, most people in our neighborhood have a live-in or daily housekeeper. Many of these children come to our house to play. The friends with housekeepers are generally the same ones who leave all of our toys strewn around our playroom when they go home. They typically throw candy wrappers and other trash on our floor or the playground outside for others to pick up. They also stubbornly refuse to eat certain foods.
I propose that things would be different if these same children were required to clean up their own messes. I’ll bet that if they cooked a meal once in a while (with adult help, as needed), or cleaned the house, they would be a whole lot more appreciative. No more taking for granted the rooms cleaned, toys bought and meals provided for them. If our friend Anna would have put in 40 hours of work for her doll, you can bet she would have placed a much higher value on it!
Start in Your Own Backyard
Are you wanting to increase your child’s social consciousness? You can start with the needy in your own backyard! Not long before we headed off to Colombia, Tom was at church on Easter Sunday morning. At greeting time he noticed an older woman sitting nearby. He made an effort to go over and say ‘hello’ to her. Within minutes he discovered that her name was Lydia. She was homeless and had been living out of her car for several months.
That afternoon he shared the situation with me. She had been sleeping in the parking lot of a Walgreen’s drugstore. She was using their bathroom to brush her teeth and change clothes. Her days were spent at job interviews to try to find work.
A Homeless Woman Moved Into Our House
That settled it! By evening Lydia had moved into our finished basement. She was a wonderful, sweet and hard-working person who just happened to have been knocked around in life recently. Lydia was able to stay with us until she got back on her feet a few months later. The whole experience was a great learning opportunity for all of us. It taught our family to be more sensitive to the needs of those around us.
How often do we simply pass by myriads of hurting people whose lives we know nothing and care nothing about? I believe an important facet of social consciousness is caring for the poor and destitute right in our own backyard. This may look different for each family. One family may take a stranger into their home while another may donate clothing to help clothe the homeless.
However you do it, it’s vital that you involve your children. Someday when you’re not there with them, they might just take up a cause on their own. They may teach their own children how to love and care for the less fortunate.
Ways to Love Others
There are countless ways you and your children can reach out to and love others.
Many people suffer from loneliness or depression during the holidays. They may miss loved ones or live far from family. Here are some ideas of things to do to help brighten up the holidays for others.
- Purchase some gifts for less advantaged children, and distribute the gifts personally
- Make Christmas cookies for an elderly or sick neighbor
- Sing Christmas carols as a family at a local Nursing Home. We did this every year when our children were young. The tears and gratitude of the residents made it so worthwhile. It was also fun to listen to some of the residents’ stories about Christmas when they were young. It helped all of us remember that life and death are a process that we are all in together!
HERE ARE SOME OTHER IDEAS YOU CAN USE YEAR-ROUND:
- Find an elderly person in your neighborhood who needs a service provided. Mow their lawn, shovel the driveway, rake the leaves, dust the house, bring in the mail, talk to them, etc.
- Bake cookies or a meal for somebody that’s going through a hard time. This might be due to sickness, sleeplessness from a new baby, family crisis, etc.
- Collect items for charity instead of gifts at a birthday party
- Have your child draw a picture for someone who’s lonely
- Take a walk with the purpose of complimenting someone (or possibly everyone) you pass
- Start a neighborhood newsletter with stories of the positive things that are happening in the neighborhood and in people’s lives
- Write to a pen pal. A good choice might be a child in another country who is the same gender and age)