How can you develop a lifestyle of generosity as a family? Should we teach our kids to share? How do we cultivate healthy perspectives in regards to suffering in the world and around us? These are questions I’ve wrestled with in the past couple of years. In this 2015 blog series, Raising Micah 6:8 Kids, I share some of what I’ve learned and look at the scriptural road map to raising a generation of world-changers: “The Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This month we look at ways to cultivate hearts of compassion that empathize, share and say, “What’s mine is yours.”
I can prepare a plate full of food for my children at dinner, and they’ll not be hungry. But the second I sit down with a snack for myself, these little ravenous creatures emerge from all corners of the house, descending upon my plate and begging for just a bite or morsel (read: leaving me just a bite or morsel).
Parenthood teaches us daily about what it means to put others before yourself, about sharing and how to live in a way that says “what’s mine is yours.” Because it truly is. Our hearts are moved with compassion and a sense of responsibility, because if we didn’t provide for them, who would?
The Bible challenges us to live that way toward others who are vulnerable. “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, ESV).
And yet for all the talk about sharing (and modeling that we do for them), kids often have a really hard time sharing with others — whether it be siblings, classmates or even kids in need. Have you ever asked your child to get together toys they no longer use to donate? Or refereed a fight over a toy or who gets to choose the movie you watch on a Friday night?
I recently asked my 7-year-old to gather items to SELL at a yard sale for CASH MONEY, and she seriously brought down three random parts of toys that would be otherwise deemed as trash. And it took her an hour to do that.
When it’s a challenge to even motivate kids to let go of a few of their toys, how can we begin to encourage their hearts to pay attention to the needs of others? What are ways we can teach the biblical concept of “loving our neighbors as ourselves”?
The key is empathy. Here are four ideas for cultivating a family culture that values empathy and sharing.
1. Talk about what it would be like in another person’s set of circumstances.
If we can imagine ourselves facing what someone else is, then we can be moved with compassion (which means to suffer with). Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, recently gave a masterful TED talk on this subject, “The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now.” I highly recommend watching it, but it is not suitable for children.
During the talk, he plays a 911 call from a woman seeking help but does not get it. Can you imagine being in a life or death situation and 911 dispatcher telling you no one is on duty to respond to the call? Yet for millions in countries around the world, this is reality. By using an example that we could all relate to, Haugen put the struggle into terms we could understand. Encourage kids to imagine what it would be like to have to find their own food, or to not have a house to live in or a good school to attend. Tread lightly – this is tough stuff! Explain that God has blessed your family so you can share with others who are in need. It’s important for kids to understand that everything comes from God. When we see the world and everything in it as his, it’s easier to think about sharing because he has shared so much with us!
What are some ways you can reframe the subject of suffering or poverty in terms or ways your child can understand?
2. When cultivating a family lifestyle that involves helping others in need, keep in mind that building relationships will build empathy.
Stories capture our attention so much faster than stats and figures. This is especially true with children. By becoming involved in the lives of others, we enter into their stories and become more capable of empathizing with their pain.
On Mother’s Day, I woke up to breakfast in bed, flowers and handmade cards. I felt celebrated and loved. I called my mother first thing that morning, as she was at her house with her mother. Not everyone has such cause to celebrate on a day like that.
For instance, our next-door neighbor recently lost her mother. She and her husband are retired and have no children. I asked my 7-year-old about how she might be feeling on a day like Mother’s Day. Her response was to draw a picture of her with flowers, and we brought it over to her as a family. Tears flowed as we chatted about loss and love and mothers and how much we appreciate and value her as a friend. Before she headed out to the cemetery to visit her mother’s grave, our neighbor put Madilyn’s picture on her fridge (“like moms do,” she added).
Think about your friends and neighbors, and ask your kids if they have ideas for who they can be a friend to. Ask them to think about a time when someone was nice to them and made them feel loved! It’s important for kids to see we are all in need and how God provides for all of us emotionally and physically. Our needs all look different, but we all depend on God. When we recognize that, we feel can more easily empathize with something else because we are all little buckets of need
Who do you know who might be going through a sad or difficult time? What are some sensitive ways your family can be present in their lives?
3. Know that because God provides, there will always be enough.
Author Steven Covey talks about an “abundance mentality” in his bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When we develop habits of being generous as a family, we beat back the fear of scarcity. It’s a biblical principle as well: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38, ESV).
Giving is an act of faith when you’re not sure how much you have left or if it will be given back to you. And it’s not just money, it’s time and other precious resources.
In God’s economy, there will always be enough. “Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:14-15 ESV).
Think about setting up a “giving budget” each month. It doesn’t even have to be very big. Explain to your kids that it is money set aside that you could use for extra things around your own household, but that as a family you would rather give it away. Ask your kids to help you decide how to use it.
Is there an area of your life that’s difficult to offer to others in need? What keeps you from doing it? How can you share those feelings with your children?
4. They will know we are Christians by our love.
What’s in the Bible contributor Lisa Strnad writes about this in “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love”:
Another way we can show our kids how to love others, even those who are non-Christian, is to make sure they see us minister to those who need to feel the love of Christ physically, first.
The sick. The elderly. The hungry. The imprisoned. The widowed. The orphaned. The homeless.
When we become the hands and feet of Jesus, we are showing others love, in His name. We are telling them, “Yes, I love you, because I was loved by Him, first.”
This can be local or global.
If you talk with your kids about a big natural disaster, like the recent earthquake in Nepal or tornados in Texas, ask them what they think those people might need. Discuss ways you can donate or raise awareness. Involving kids in global crisis helps them to see how big the world is and reminds them that they can make a difference even when they are really far away.
Locally and even within your family, you can encourage your kids to minister to their siblings and even parents. If dad is sick, encourage them to make him a cup of hot tea or help with the chores around the house. Being the hands and feet of Jesus can be as simple as that.
Can we commit to raising kids who live with open hands and hearts? How can we lead our households into a lifestyle committed to entering the pain of others in hopes of sharing their load and showing them the love and healing power of Christ?
As you cultivate a spirit of empathy and generosity among your family, affirm to your children that what’s mine is yours, because it all comes from God: “Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father who made the heavenly lights, in whom there is no inconsistency or shifting shadow” (James 1:17, International Standard Version). I might even happily share my next snack for that very reason.
Through Paul’s letters, we learn what it means to live as a follower of Jesus! Learn more about the 13 letters that Paul wrote to churches all over the Roman world in the DVD Letters From Paul.
Cara Davis is a writer and editor in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s been published in The Huffington Post, The New York Post, CNN, USA Today and The New York Times. She lives with her husband and two girls in East Nashville where she co-founded a nonprofit called Community PTO to support the success of local community schools.