We want kids to follow Jesus’ example. Here’s how to sow the seeds of spiritual generosity in them and help set them on the path to a lifelong attitude of generosity.
“Daddy, what are you doing?”
“Oh, just trying to fix Mommy’s car.”
There’s silence for a while.
“Daddy, can I help you?”
“Well, there isn’t much you can do.”
Again there’s silence.
“I can get the tools for you,” my daughter says as she reaches for the toolbox.
Suddenly, all my nuts and bolts scatter across the garage floor.
“Please, Kimberly,” I say. “Just leave things alone.”
“Daddy, please can I help you?”
“Well, watching is helping,” I reply.
She stands in silence for a while, watching, but soon leaves. Like all children, mine were inquisitive. No matter what I was doing, they usually wanted to help. But I thought adult work was too complicated and beyond their present capabilities, so I’d often respond, “Well, watching is helping.” It all came back to haunt me as they entered their adolescent years. Their inquisitiveness and natural inclination for helping began to wane. They grew more self-absorbed. I wondered, Had I set a precedent that discouraged volunteering and wanting to help? Had I inhibited or otherwise squashed a natural tendency to be generous in my own children?
Almost from infancy, children exhibit a strong sense of generosity, of wanting to do something significant to help others. Children, sometimes unconsciously, want to make a difference — but because of years of adults inflicting on them the “watching is helping” syndrome, they’re rendered immobilized and atrophied. Kids encounter many obstacles and strong resistance to their slightest efforts at being generous due to adults’ “protective” gene — when really we ought to be exposing them to opportunities to express their budding generosity.
Watching is not helping. We often discourage children’s natural generosity by redirecting their offers to help with lame excuses such as “you’re not mature enough” or “you’re too young.” Perhaps we don’t realize that by restraining kids’ inclination to help, we can arrest their growth of generosity. As a consequence, far too many children-turned-adults remain on the sidelines while offering little in the way of care and concern for others and for a hurting world.
Looking for the Exit
Jesus was onto something when he spent so much of his time and resources trying to convince us to care about what happens to other people, especially people we don’t know or don’t like (the Samaritan, lepers, the woman at the well, the possessed, the poor). Jesus clearly believed that helping others isn’t just a responsibility we have by virtue of our knowing a loving and caring God. It’s more than that. Our humanity in Jesus, by its very nature, harbors a spiritual need to feel benevolent. Generosity is a spiritual intuition. It’s in our DNA as created by God. We glorify God by how we show generosity to others (Matthew 25:31-46).
One Sunday while sharing the Kid’s Connection — our children’s sermon time — I asked the group what they thought was the most important door of the church. I hoped I was encouraging them to think about coming to church more often. Without hesitation, one young girl eagerly waved her hand.
“The exit,” she said. My suspicion was she was probably expressing her annoyance at having to sit through one too many long sermons.
“Why,” I asked, “is the exit important?”
“Because,” she replied as if she’d been waiting for just this question for a very long time, “only after we leave can we do what Jesus asks us to do: help other people.”
We invite children, even entire families, into our ministries and churches promising a prescription for purpose in life, a focus for the future, and a connection with God. We keep them in the church with a preoccupation with the church’s agenda. To understand the gospel mandate, however, is to have an “exit minded” philosophy; to see the exit as the threshold to the world, outside where Christians are meant to serve. Expressing generosity toward others is at the foundation of the Christian community’s life and faith (Matthew 25); it needs to also be at the center of our mission to children. Drawing Out the Spirit of Giving
Developing the spiritual generosity of children is as much dependent upon mentoring as upon any other influence. Our task as children’s ministers is one of “drawing out” the generous spirit that lies within each child, nurturing the urge to help in all circumstances and under all conditions. There’s no single teachable moment, no one hour of time, no surefire curriculum that’ll guarantee that a child’s generous spirit will flourish. What is certain, however, is that left to themselves, like flowers without water, their tendency to be generous will surely wither and die.
Generosity is simply defined as the willingness to take responsibility for the welfare of others. At its core, it’s a spiritual state of being. Generosity is modeled by God, taught by Jesus, and both proclaim it as a condition for faithfulness. Despite outward appearances of self-absorption, a natural inclination toward generosity lies dormant in children. God acts as the facilitator by providing examples, calling out the generous side of our nature. Our task is to work alongside God as his representatives to facilitate this generous spirit in children. Here are practical ways to do that.
• Start early. Studies indicate that even infants have surprisingly generous instincts. My granddaughter at 10 months loved to pick up her food from her high chair and offer it to me. I’d take a piece and say, “Thank you.” She seemed to understand and offered more. Saying “thank you” to an infant, even when you’re removing something from her hands she shouldn’t be playing with, sets a tone of encouragement for sharing. As the infant grows and continually encounters appreciation for caring initiatives, she learns the value of generosity for her own satisfaction. She enjoys making other people feel good.
The Youth Service America organization promotes teaching children as young as 5 about service to others and community. They suggest that early childhood service engagement is a powerful predictor for whether that child will have a propensity to continue acting generously as an adult. Kids ages 5 to 6 can directly participate in projects that promote generosity and sharing time with others, such as adopting a grandparent, selling cookies, planting flowers, and playing with disabled kids. Supervision and simple directions are all that’s necessary. Share examples of Jesus’ generosity in caring for people (Luke 14:12-14, Luke 6:37-42) to help young children bridge the gap between what Jesus does and what they do — a first step in nurturing a generous faith.
• Commend acts of generosity. Commending acts of generosity sounds obvious, but it occurs less frequently than we might suppose. In my first church, our home was located near the church and on a main road leading into town. I awoke one morning and found that my adolescent daughter had invited a stranger into the house who’d come to the door seeking something to eat. She prepared him a bowl of cornflakes and toasted two pieces of bread. We did feed him and he was most gracious. Later I commended my daughter for her generosity, but also reminded her that it was best if she informed us before acting on her own. The words “go away” never occurred to her, and for that I was a proud pastor parent.
Even if the act is awkward, if you suspect that it was done out of genuine generosity, commend it. Kids may misinterpret a situation, but their impulse is still one of compassion.
• Promote tolerance. Your ministry can foster an atmosphere of safety and acceptance for all children and all families. A genuinely welcoming and consistent atmosphere speaks to the heart of children and their parents. Intentionally creating attitudes of tolerance without condoning sinful attitudes or actions or giving up cherished principles goes a long way toward generating an atmosphere in which children can experience generosity in real-life situations. Seeing, for children, is believing. If children live with generosity, they become generous.
• Be consistent. Consistency is a forceful teacher. We can’t afford to be hypocritical (do as I say, not as I do). Christian generosity is a way of life, an attitude, a posture that finds its expression in the deeds we do and the actions we take. Children are quick to pick up on inconsistencies between word and deed. Monitor the consistency with which the people in your ministry act regarding their stated beliefs. If children discover that animosities exist or they experience injustice within a community that preaches love and tolerance, they’re confused (and they should be). Inconsistency between word and action not only confuses children, but it also stifles generosity and stimulates children toward self-centeredness.
• Expect the unexpected. Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The Pharisees plied him with questions and tried to anticipate his answers. Instead he’d point them in a completely new direction. When asked “who,” (Who is my neighbor?), Jesus answered with “how,” (How can you be a neighbor?) in Luke 10:25-37. When children misbehave — not sharing, bullying, fighting — they do so almost with the expectation of consequences. They await punishment. So think about confronting the unwanted behavior in unexpected ways. If a child is having a tantrum or bullying another child, react with a huge bear hug. The unexpected might so disarm the child that he remembers the hug as an act of generosity and calming that sets an “example” for more appropriate behavior on his part the next time he’s angry. Unexpected generosity demonstrated by adults sets the tone for children’s future behavior. Being accepted despite unacceptable behavior changes children’s perceptions in radical ways.
Turning the Other Cheek
If you read Matthew 5:38-48 to a group of elementary kids, they’d probably want to know what planet you’re from. Imagine if you decided to have show-and-tell time on Sundays where kids could bring their favorite toys. Among the dolls and stuffed animals, you’d likely see toy guns, simulated weapons of mass destruction, and action figures who thrive on rendering one of the three R’s — revenge, retribution, and retaliation.
If we don’t reinforce Jesus’ mandate to love our enemies, kids quickly unlearn it. The concept becomes an enigma to the normal child. Jesus’ mandates aren’t just sentiments; they’re strategies. If generosity is premised on caring for others’ welfare, then revenge, retribution, and retaliation have to be rooted out early. As ministers to children, we can help kids overcome the need to pursue the three R’s by providing alternative ways of coping with anger and enemies. Teach kids — and model for them — that forgiveness is an act of generosity. Ask kids personal questions that give them unique insight into specific situations:
How would you feel if you hit someone and she didn’t hit you back?
Why wouldn’t someone want to get even?
What’s the best way to make a friend? To keep a friend?
We find many models for the generous spirit in Jesus’ words, actions, and ministry. Perhaps just as important as nurturing children’s natural generosity is for us as children’s ministers to reinvest time and resources studying the many examples of Jesus’ generosity — and considering those implications for our own lives. Children live by example: They learn generosity when we’ve been generous toward them.
Peter Christian Olsen is the author of Youth at Risk: Ministry to the Least, the Lost, and the Last. He’s been a Christian educator for more than 25 years, and is a children’s and youth counselor in New Braunfels, Texas.
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