“There are starving people who would be happy to eat your dinner!”
Statements like this echo on the lips of mothers everywhere, desperate to teach their kids a little perspective and generosity. I know it’s true in our home. Despite the fact that such sentiments never made me happy to eat lasagna, I still employ the same strategy with my children.
However, making your child feel guilty about the food they eat, or the possessions they have, or the experiences they enjoy, will accomplish nothing to increase their concern for others. But that doesn’t mean our hands are tied as we hope our kids don’t grow into selfish and entitled adults. Here are three tools to stir compassionate generosity in the stubborn kids dramatically gagging over their dinner choices.
Guilt doesn’t motivate true generosity. Gratitude does. And gratitude typically doesn’t grow as a result of being lectured. It’s the result of rejoicing–rejoicing first in the Gift of Jesus and also in God’s physical provision.
When your kids are enjoying a yummy meal, or a fun activity, or a favorite toy, we can sow seeds of gratitude in their hearts by pointing to the Giver of all good gifts. We can talk about God’s kindness to create the tastebuds that make food delicious. We can celebrate the creativity of those who make the beautiful clothes, music, or goods we enjoy. And by modeling gratitude in our own lives–refusing to take daily blessings for granted–our children will increasingly notice the gifts they’ve received. They may never rejoice over eating peas or chicken casserole, but they might start rejoicing over God’s provision of food.
And as their gratitude grows for what’s been given to them, they will want to share their blessings with others.
We should help our kids cultivate an awareness of others’ suffering, but this shouldn’t happen in moments of frustration when we’re trying to make them clean up the toys that “other kids wish they had” or to have good attitudes about homework because “some kids never get to attend school.”
True compassion is nurtured, not manipulated. We don’t need to sensationalize suffering, and we certainly should never make ourselves out to be saviors. But in age appropriate ways, we can discuss how sad it must be for refugees to flee their homes, or for children to lose their parents, or for the disabled to be stigmatized. We don’t teach these things to make our children despair over the state of the world but to help them see the pain of others.
As they grow the ability to face the suffering, they will want to extend care and comfort.
Teach the Joy of Giving
Even though generosity often involves the sacrifice of our own wants to provide for the needs of another, we shouldn’t primarily focus on the self-denial part. We should focus on the reward of joy! Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” and Scripture tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver…” We actually gain joy by giving!
We can help our kids grow excited by the prospect of living generously towards others. If we’ve already been teaching gratitude and compassion, giving will be the natural overflow of their hearts. Maybe it’s putting pennies in an offering, or baking cookies for an elderly neighbor, or offering their new backpack to the refugee girl who just enrolled at school. Whatever the situation, Jesus assures that they will be blessed in giving.
When generosity sprouts from cheerful hearts it won’t wither in the weeds of guilt or obligation, our kids will want to give.
Even if they don’t want their dinner.
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