Every parent strives to give their children a happier and healthier future than the one that they themselves have inherited. Many people do this by trying to give their children what they think their children need – more material goods, greater material wealth, and better opportunities to experience the beautiful things in life. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church de-emphasizes personal gain in what she teaches her children. Contradictory to what would seem to make sense, the Church teaches her children that the secret to happier and healthier lives is not self-service, but service to others.
Current psychological research backs this up. Psychological studies conducted amongst toddlers show that toddlers who give to others are happier than toddlers who do not. Volunteerism among adults reduces mortality rates by as much as 40% .. A study conducted by the Kellog Institute shows that adolescents who participate in service to others not only increase their overall happiness and well-being, but also show increases in academic performance, self-confidence, and a decrease in behavioral problems. What the Catholic Church has been telling us all along is true – the secret to raising happy, healthy children is to ensure that those children learn how to serve others. There are many benefits to serving others, but I’ll go over a few of the biggest below.
Benefit One: Finding Your PlaceBut I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. – Exodus 9:16
Almost four years ago, I was privileged to be invited to join a special group of women from my Church in a retreat. I spent six months after that retreat preparing to serve another group of women in giving that retreat to them. It was on the day that we were deciding the roles that each of us would play that I finally realized why I had been born with so many different talents and gifts. I was not a specialist. I was designed to fill in the gaps. The number of talents and abilities I had made me uniquely able to stand in the place of whoever couldn’t show up until the right person, a person with specialized talents, could get there to take my place. Without my efforts to serve others, I never would have realized why I had been given so many talents and gifts. My life would have continued to make no sense.
Every human being is born with and for a specific purpose which they, and they alone, are uniquely qualified to fulfill. Like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, there are some people whose ultimate purpose is clear from the outset, their talents and gifts evident to the casual observer. These are the corner and border pieces of that jigsaw puzzle, those who hold together the rest of us and without whom none of us would be able to ever truly find our place.
Then there are the rest of us. To a casual observer, we make no sense. It’s hard to tell where we belong just by looking at us. We have no distinguishing features, nothing that immediately screams, “Aha! This one goes there!”. In fact, it isn’t until we are connected to the right place and the right people that our talents and gifts begin to make sense. Serving others often helps us to make sense of the talents, gifts, and even the history that we bring with us and to find our place in society.
Benefit Two: Making a DifferenceSo often in life we are fooled into believing that what we do doesn’t really matter. We become convinced that our lives and our efforts do not change the world and so they do not make a difference. Yet the reality is that small acts of service can make a huge difference, even if the only person it changes is us. This is what service to others teaches us. It empowers us to realize how simple it is to make a large difference in the world by making small changes to the lives of those who are nearest to us.
Early in March of 2009, I went on a silent retreat. I got there not really knowing what I wanted out of the retreat, simply knowing that my cup was empty and I didn’t know how to refill it. During that retreat, God asked me to serve those around me. At every meal, I took the empty trays and collected the cups and dishes. I did it without a word or a single explanation. I saw these simple acts of service make a difference to the people around me.
One of the most human things to need to know is that your life makes a difference, but if you never serve others you will never know what kind of difference you are making. If we want our children to have that hunger to make a difference fulfilled it is important that we give them opportunities to see how their lives can make a difference by encouraging them to serve others.
Benefit Three: Developing EmpathyWhen we serve others, we must first see them and their need before we can begin to help them. This helps us to develop empathy with their current situation, empathy that drives us to work for a more permanent solution. This empathy naturally exists in children, but it takes practical application and repeated exposure before they can respond appropriately to a given situation. (http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=15272) Serving others provides both repeated exposure to others and the practical application that is required for them to develop healthy responses to moral challenges, such as what to do when they are nice to someone but someone doesn’t respond in a kind manner in return.
Service to others also exposes children to what life is like for people that don’t live like they live. This increases their ability to empathize with a wider range of people, and to feel a deeper connection to them than they might be able to feel otherwise. Every act of service connects your child to the world around them in a more profound way and helps them to truly see the needs of others and to understand not only why those needs exist but what can be done to help people overcome those situations.
This empathy comes right back to home. A child who learns to serve others outside of the home becomes more aware of his or her own parents’ needs and more thoughtful of them. A child who can serve those outside the home becomes more empathetic to the needs and desires of his or her siblings. Service to others is a gift that keeps giving throughout a lifetime.
Benefit Four: A Sense of ResponsibilityMy first big experience with serving the needs of someone else was in caring for my little sister. I was 10 ½ years old when she was born, and 11 when I was left home alone with her for the first time. I knew that if I didn’t care for her, no one else would. If I neglected her, failed to feed her, didn’t change her diaper, or didn’t give her comfort there was no one else who would do it for me. I couldn’t just leave home and go on a walk, or go over to a friend’s house. I couldn’t just bury my nose in a book. Without my help, there was a very real possibility that she might get hurt or even die. I had to attend to her needs, to focus on what she wanted. It was a lesson in being responsible to others.
Serving others puts a child in a position where someone else needs them. They are accountable to that person, and must put aside their own wants and desires in order to attend to this person’s needs. If they choose not to show up, or choose not to serve, there may not be someone else to take their place. Sadly, more and more children in this world are growing up without siblings. They are growing up without that sense of responsibility because they’ve never had anyone who was dependent upon them for life.
Encouraging our children to serve others, though, can overcome this problem by putting them in a position where they must place the needs of others ahead of their own. They need to see that others get hurt when they fail to show up, or show up late. The bottom line is that responsibility is developed by making someone responsible for someone else in a very real way. When we know that our failure doesn’t just get measured on a clock or marked in a book, when that failure hurts a real person, we are more likely to be driven to take it seriously.
\I hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. You can follow the link above to find the introduction and earlier chapters if you are just finding this series. I hope you will join us later for chapter 16: Encouraging Questions.
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