“Aqui, aqui!,” yelled my filthy, smiling son as he sprinted across the playground, urging his new Mexican friends to pass him the soccer ball.

Our family had just traveled across the country for a service trip in Mexico. The day was a scorcher, and dust rose from the dilapidated elementary schoolyard where mangy dogs roamed the area, crossing a stream of sewage. Without complaint, however, our four kids captured the spirit of our first “service trip.” They cleaned floors, collected trash, dug holes for plants, painted— and topped the work off with a raucous soccer game. After working harder than ever during our first day in Mexico, the kids couldn’t wait to do it again the next day and each day that followed.

I wondered who had kidnapped my kids and replaced them with these obedient look-alikes. At home, my children leave wet towels heaped on the floor and stinky socks under the bed. They spill milk, talk back, whine, refuse to eat their vegetables, forget to wash their hands and protest bedtime.

When we arrived at our work site in Mexico, it was as if my kids drank a dose of perspective along with their breakfast of huevos rancheros and corn tortillas. They suddenly realized the point of our multiple lectures— we live comfortable lives.

The kids made friends, learned to communicate with native Spanish speakers and worked tirelessly, making me realize their vast untapped potential. Our days spent among the poor Mexican community made it virtually impossible to focus on our own problems and desires. Far from the things that normally make life fun and easy for us, including the Wii, air conditioning and cushy down pillows, our family was happy and energized despite the surrounding squalor.

Or maybe it was the circumstance? Richard Weissbourd explains this seeming contradiction in The Parents We Mean To Be (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Apparently, serving others increases well-being.

As a modern parent, I fall into the trap Weissbourd describes in his book. I’ve tried to make my kids happy by catering to their wishes, showering them with praise and protecting them from hardship. And I feel unduly smug when I hear of others who pander even more— parents who do their children’s homework, make demands on coaches about playing time, argue grades with teachers or cook multiple dinners to please everyone’s unique palettes.

“All this work to buttress self-esteem and happiness not only makes children less capable of moral action, more self-occupied, less able to invest in others, more fragile and less able to stand up for important values,” Weissbourd explains, “but…more prone to worry and unhappiness.” In other words, we run ourselves ragged to make our kids happy, and they aren’t that happy.

Weissbourd suggests we change our paradigm and help our children look outwardly instead of within. As parents, if we want moral children, we need to help children see themselves as part of a larger community— a community that needs their participation. And families certainly don’t have to trek to Mexico or other countries to serve others and experience character-building opportunities. We can readily focus on the needs of other people in our own neighborhoods and homes.

“Ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy’s well-known words ring particularly true. If we substitute “country” for the other communities we’re in— the classroom, neighborhood, family, team, nursing home or town— we can change our focus from inward to outward.

My friends did this recently. They decided to trick-or-treat on Halloween at a nearby elderly rehab hospital. The patients were thrilled to see Elmo, Pocahontas and Cinderella walking the halls, and the children learned Halloween doesn’t have to be a holiday centered on a “gimme more candy” approach.

When we give to others, we gain perspective and transformation happens. Soon after our service trip, my daughter wrote, “Being in Mexico made me realize how blessed I am to live the life I do.” Giving leads directly to thankful, happy hearts. Can’t all of our families use more of that this season?

Five Family Service Ideas

  1. Clean the neighborhood or a local park. Put up signs about the upcoming effort, grab some gloves and trash bags and ask other families to join you for a morning of beautification.
  2. Start a neighborhood newsletter. Interview friends and neighbors, tell jokes, take pictures, write captions and draw comic strips. Perhaps bring your children to a nursing home in the area and offer to orchestrate a monthly newsletter for the residents.
  3. Create a free lemonade or hot cocoa stand. Bake cookies, make drinks and hand out goodies at no cost. Or, ask your customers to tell you something you don’t know about them in lieu of payment. Another option is to use a bake sale or food stand where you request payment to raise money for an important cause or charity.
  4. Hold a complimentary car wash. Grab a hose, suds and sponges and make the cars in your neighborhood sparkle, just because.
  5. Shop for a soldier. Take your kids to buy some toiletries, reading material, playing cards and videos, tucking in letters of thanks and drawings into the package to be shipped.
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