In our family, we live in a land of convenient applesauce pouches and movies in the car. Though I am glad we have enough and don’t have to struggle anymore, my 8-year-old son has said a few things that are concerning to me.
Things like, “Oh well, we can just buy another one” in response to a broken toy, or when I asked him if he wanted to color a picture to send to our sponsored child in India, he replied, “Well, you picked him. Can’t you do it?”
He really does have a tender heart and at his core is a really good kid that I am very proud of. But he is spoiled.
I fully recognize my part in making life a little too convenient and easy for him. In 2009, we lost our house when the economy tanked and my husband lost his job. We worked so hard to get back on track and we are in a much better place now, but I am probably overcompensating from feeling so restricted back then. He was just a toddler when it happened and doesn’t remember when we really struggled.
But now I’m seeing signs of entitlement and “affluenza” if you will, and I don’t want it to continue.
I saw an opportunity for a big teaching moment when a friend’s family asked people to perform acts of kindness in memory of their loved one. I signed us up to serve breakfast at the Nashville Rescue Mission, our area men’s homeless shelter.
We got up before the sun, arrived at the kitchen, and dressed in aprons, hairnets, and gloves. The kitchen manager greeted us and found several age-appropriate things for us to do.
We worked side by side with the kitchen staff, many of whom are in the recovery program at the shelter. It was a busy, full-blown industrial kitchen, but we were able to make a little bit of chit chat and learn some names.
When you’re 8, it means a lot to be assigned your own job. My son enjoyed dumping bags of beans into a large bin and leveling them out. He loved finding ways to fit as many pizzas as he could onto the big warming trays for lunch and scooping cups of sugar for use in the dining hall. He was helpful in rolling up silverware, and his enthusiasm was a welcome sound so early in the morning.
They got him a milk crate to stand on so he would be level height with the rest of us, and he was put on yogurt duty. As the trays came down the line for breakfast, it was his job to place a yogurt on the tray and pass the tray on to the next person.
They typically serve around 500 people for each meal, so the line moves fast, but he kept up really well. At several points, he asked “Are we done yet?” and I would just smile and say no, and we would continue on. Several of the men in the line greeted him and said thank you, and he earned the nickname “Little Man.”
After serving tray after tray after tray, we reached the end of the line and our shift was done after two-and-a-half hours.
We learned a lot of things about hard work and humanity that day. And while these takeaways may be obvious to us as adults, they’re definitely eye-opening for an 8-year-old to see:
Food runs out quickly.
He ran out of yogurt, so they gave him apples and oranges to serve in their place. And when the fruit ran out, they gave him sweet breads to serve. They have what they have, and when it’s gone, it’s gone and you have to move on to the next thing.
Not everyone gets to choose what they eat.
Not everyone can go to the pantry and pick a snack from a room full of stuff. The people in line get what is served, and it is rationed out to make sure everyone gets something.
Not everyone lives the same way.
As we were escorted to the kitchen, we passed by some of the rooms the men stay in while they’re in the program at the shelter, much like dorm rooms. Not everyone has the same advantages in life, or lives in the same kind of house with roomfuls of toys.
Serving others is important.
It takes a lot of work to serve 500 people. I was proud to see my son work so hard to keep up, as he is used to being the one served. It was great for him to be on the other end of the serving line.
Having gratitude is vital.
After everyone was served, the kitchen staff stood together in a circle and prayed, and each person shared one thing they were grateful for before they sat down to eat together. It was very moving to see that.
Several of the men in line said “thank you” as they received their trays, and I made it a point to look up and make eye contact with them and smile and say “you’re welcome.” And every time I did, my heart broke a little.
I saw worn faces with years and years of life on them, thanking me for a meal. Seeing their gratitude in hard circumstances made so much that I’ve ever worried about seem so trivial.
I don’t know what brought them to this point, but they’re here. Seeking something better and finding hope. It isn’t an easy road to change your life, but they’re here. There is great honor in that.
We had big heart changes that day, though my son’s was a little different than mine.
On the way home, I asked him what he thought of all of the people we just worked with. And he said, “What do you mean? They’re just people.”
That’s the wonderful thing about kids. The best time to teach them about compassion and service is when they are still innocent of heart and societal judgments haven’t yet taken root.
We go back and serve at the shelter once a week now, and it’s a special time we have together. It’s so important to truly focus on others and keep a proper perspective.
There’s nothing wrong with living a convenient applesauce-pouch life with movies in the car. But I urge you to get your kids involved with those in need and give them (and yourself) a real opportunity to gain perspective and truly appreciate it.
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