Teaching Kids Service

Most kids think that serving and fun go together like oil and water, and teaching them to think otherwise can sometimes seem daunting. However, according to Merrilee Boyack, it may be easier than you think.

Boyack, who has written several books on parenting, including 52 Weeks of Fun Family Service, suggests that the best way for parents to foster selflessness is by creating a "family culture" of service. "Having a family cause allows the children to feel a sense of ownership, a sense of pride and involvement," she says. Don't wait for Scouts or Young Women activities: give your kids opportunities to serve others from the time they're young. The younger they start, the more comfortable and confident in service they will be and more likely to continue serving in the future. Here are some ways to help your children develop a lifelong involvement in service.

Involve yourself. Boyack believes parental involvement is critical. Kids can really start serving when they have a parent alongside them. "That's always the first step," Boyack says.

If you want to get your children interested in service work, then show them you enjoy it and think it's important. Cheerfully volunteer to help out with or even organize Relief Society or elders quorum service projects or other work in the community. When your children see you enjoying the work you're doing, their interest is sure to be piqued.

If you don't believe it, there are numbers to prove it - according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, an overwhelming 86 percent of youth who volunteer for community service also have parents and siblings who do so. On the other hand, 64 percent of youth who do not volunteer have similarly non-volunteering families. Families with parents who teach by example are most likely to have children who are interested in volunteering from a young age and more willing to become involved as they get older.

Make it a family affair. Parents can't do all the work, so get the kids actively involved in service.

Let them decide what project or event your family will be involved with, and even let them help plan it. This can ensure that you end up doing something that caters to your children's particular interests and talents. Kids will be more likely to stay interested when they can help plan something they already love - they'll want to see it through to the end. If they're animal lovers, find out if you can volunteer at a local animal shelter; if they are avid readers, see if there is a program at their school or library where they can read to younger children; if they love to be outside, help an elderly neighbor or relative with yard work. Service, says Boyack, "allows the children to really develop their skills and talents in a very personal and individual way that they may not otherwise get."

Being involved in "grown-up" work can also be a great confidence booster, and they'll feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when working on "their" project rather than merely following Mom and Dad's orders.

Serve often. The holiday season is the most popular time for volunteer work. However, don't forget that there are people in need year-round. Make service a habit for your family by doing it regularly. Decide on a routine, such as giving service a certain amount of hours per week or month, and stick to it. Keeping a schedule will make your children feel more comfortable serving and, as long as it's something they find enjoyable, will increase the likelihood that they will want to continue.

Finding the time may seem hard, but, according to Boyack, it's simply a matter of priorities. "Remove the video games and it's remarkable how much time they have on their hands," she notes. Again, it is up to parents to set the example. "The parents have to make it a priority," she says, "and pull the plug on everything else."

Don't stress. Service doesn’t have to be time consuming or even involve a lot of preparation. There are many different ways to serve others. Boyack suggests allowing children to make a donation to an organization they wish to support, such as Heifer International. At their website, heifer.org, you can choose an animal, such as a goat, cow, or flock of ducks, for which you can pay a share. The animal is then purchased for a family in poverty as a way for them to support themselves. Not only is giving a farm animal fun, but it can broaden children's horizons by showing them people in need in faraway countries.

You can get your kids more involved by letting them earn the money they use to donate. Let them collect spare change in a jar or make a lemonade stand. Remember that service will always be a better, more meaningful experience if your kids feel like they really contributed to the project.

Remember the why. The most important part of the process is to remember - and to help your children remember - why you are serving. For Boyack, service goes beyond good citizenship. "Our number one task as parents is to raise our children to be disciples of Christ," she says. "If that is our goal, then we must provide opportunities and experiences for them to do His work, and by doing His work to emulate Him and become like Him."

She believes that for families with those children who are just "difficult," giving them opportunities to serve is the best way to get through to them. "I watched what it did for my son; I've watched what it's done for many children like that, and it saves a child and it saves the relationship that you have with that child."

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