My kids fight more in December. It’s the one month our family focuses most heavily on love, giving, and the life of Jesus Christ so you’d think with all the lights, the magic, and the wonder, they’d be so happy that a naturally outpouring of love and kindness would overcome them. But I’ve often observed an outpouring of something less pleasant and it makes me tired all over. When did Christmas become more about what material items we will get and less about what we can give of ourselves?
This year, in an attempt to change that pattern, I formulated a plan whereby we would do one act of service for someone outside our family every day in December. We’re busy and I knew we would give up halfway through if the tasks were too difficult, so we decided to go small and go consistent. Also, my kids are eight, six, and two so I decided to pick things we could all participate in or, in the two-year-old’s case, be present for.
We started with something that could capture everyone’s imagination – serving at the fire station! That got their attention. What we ended up doing at the fire station was wiping down tables in a training room, but from the excitement on the kids’ faces, you’d have thought we were polishing the fire pole or taking the engine out for a spin. It was ten minutes of pure joy and they immediately asked, “Can we do another one right now?”
I considered blindfolding them, taking them home, and telling them we were cleaning the firemen’s bedrooms, putting away the firemen’s laundry, and doing the firemen’s homework but I opted for honesty.
“We need to get our own work done at home. Let’s do another one tomorrow.”
And we did.
Too young and crazy to volunteer at a homeless shelter or the local food bank, we’ve done a lot of cleaning and manual labor. We helped a neighbor with her raking, loading leaves into yard waste bags, returned strangers’ carts at the grocery store, dusted the shelves and instruments at the school where the kids take music classes, and went shopping for a couple of kids whose names we found on a giving tree.
There have been a couple of days where things have gotten hairy here at home and we’ve resorted to saying things like, “Laylee performed in the community theater play today so she served the whole community for us.” But for the most part, we’ve found something we could all do together.
My favorite might have been one Sunday when we were leaving church and I had the kids hurry and clean up the little bits of trash and junk off the carpet in the children’s primary room. We rushed around cleaning, while I periodically peeked through a crack in the door and told them the next congregation was on their way and we had to hurry so our service would be a secret. We got done just in time and sneaked out a side door, so relieved that we didn’t get “caught” doing secret service!
Has the kids’ behavior change dramatically overnight? The first week I would have said – NO. I wanted to string them up by their toes actually, because although they were enjoying the service and asking if we could do it again next year, they were also fighting over who got to use the good duster and whining and tattling once we got home.
But over the last week, ever so slowly, I’ve noticed a change. Laylee’s been more likely to encourage Magoo and be patient with him and he’s been slower to anger. They’ve both been noticing service opportunities everywhere and are more excited about shopping for each other than they are about what they’re getting this year. Now, Wanda’s been a ball of unholy fire and rage but I’m chocking that up to age and croupiness.
They’re still themselves and as flawed as I am, but the positive changes I’m noticing in all of us are worth the little effort it takes to plan a 15-minute act of service daily. I’m grateful to friends and neighbors who’ve let us come by and “serve” them when I’m sure that sometimes it’s less than convenient and less than helpful. I don’t know anyone who sits around thinking, “I wish a six-year-old and a two-year-old would come and wash my windows!”
Things still on our list (that may or may not get done) are – walk a neighbor’s dog, take treats to the checkers at Safeway, feed our neighbor’s chickens, “babysit a friend,” make dinner for someone, play with a wheelchair-bound friend, read or to someone at a nursing home, gather canned goods for the food bank, run errands for someone, sweep someone’s porch, disinfect toys in the church nursery, donate toys and clothes to Good Will, make our friends’ beds, wipe the neighborhood mailboxes clean.
Even if this whole experiment doesn’t make us behave better today, I hope that it’s something my kids will remember as they get older and they’re choosing how to spend their time. My main goal as a parent is to teach my kids how to live in a way that they will be happy and successful adults. If I’m not modeling service with them now, they won’t live it when they’re older and they’ll miss out on some major opportunities for happiness.