Just the other day, a friend and I were having a conversation about our children and Christmas. “I want to give my kids gifts, but I don’t want them to feel entitled to them,” she said. I completely understood. I think that most parents want their children to feel grateful for what they have. One of the best ways that I have found to develop this thankful attitude, especially during the holidays, is to encourage our children to love and serve others.
In the Orthodox Church, the 40 days before Christmas are called the Nativity Fast. During this time, Christians have historically prepared themselves for the miracle of the Incarnation through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.
We pray often–through the Psalter, through the Hours, through the Jesus Prayer, and through spontaneous prayer–to repent, to find ourselves continually in the presence of God, and to intercede for the world.
We fast–abstaining from meat and dairy–in order to simplify our habits. We focus less on what goes into the mouth and more on what comes out of it.
And we give alms–serving others in love and humility–in order to imitate our Savior and show his love to the world. We are reminded of this in the Gospel reading on the first Sunday of the Nativity Fast–that of the Good Samaritan.
As parents, we hope to share these deep mysteries with our children. However, it can be difficult to think of practical ways that young children can help serve other people. These 10 ideas are merely a starting place to help families find outlets of service as they prepare for the Feast of Nativity with acts of service.
10 Ways Your Children Can Serve Others
1. Make IOCC Health Kits
One of our favorite charities to support is International Orthodox Christian Charities. IOCC is a trustworthy organization that uses 92% of each donation for work on the ground. They are deeply involved in helping refugees inside Syria and around the world. One simple way for your child to practically help others is to make hygiene kits or baby kits that will benefit those in crisis. You can find more information HERE to help you assemble and mail the kits that provide basic necessities (like soap, diapers, etc.) to those who desperately need them.
2. Bake Cookies for Firefighters
If your children are anything like mine, they are in awe of firefighters and police officers! Spend a morning baking cookies, banana bread, or other yummy treats. Then drive over to your local fire station and deliver it to those who have to serve even on holidays.
3. Become an Angel for an Angel Tree
This time of year the malls, libraries, and schools are filled with Angel Trees–trees decorated with paper ornaments that list items needed or requested by local families in need. Kids will enjoy picking a child of a similar age and helping select and wrap the gifts. These items are then returned to the location where you picked up the angel.
4. Purchase Canned Goods to Donate
Most food banks welcome donations any time of year, but especially over the holidays. My children enjoy purchasing canned goods at the grocery store to donate to those who need food. I generally give them a $10 bill (or a $10 gift card for the store) and let them choose the items themselves. In addition to helping others, this also provides many practical math lessons. The children have to budget, keep track of the amount they are spending, and figure out taxes. After we purchase all of the items, we deliver them immediately. This helps make the youngest ones make the connection between what they have been buying and the way in which it will be used.
5. Make Bags for the Homeless
If you live in a city (or even a large town), it is likely that you have seen many homeless people in your daily activities. My oldest son, especially, asks many questions about the homeless and wants to help them. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine with a son of a similar age, she told me that their family makes bags for the homeless. They use gallon freezer bags and fill them with granola bars, a bottle of water, a toothbrush and toothpaste, etc. They then keep this bags in their car so that they can give a bag to any homeless person they see. What a great way to demonstrate love toward our fellow man!
6. Write Cards for Military Members
My brother served in the navy for seven years. I vividly remember difficult Christmases when he was deployed and away from our family. Writing a letter or sending a card to a deployed military serviceman or woman is such a simple way to brighten someone’s holiday season. You can send the cards through organizations like A Million Thanks. This is a great project for families with toddlers and other young children. Spend an afternoon writing and decorating cards and drop them in the mail. It doesn’t get much easier!
7. Clean Your Church
Help your child learn that it takes the entire Church to care for the church building. Volunteer to spend a morning cleaning up your church. Kids who have never shown an interest in cleaning their rooms will somehow find a love of cleaning when it is done somewhere else! Little ones can wipe tables, dust baseboards, and clean chairs. Older kids can help vacuum, rake leaves, shovel snow, or iron vestments. Our church has periodic church-wide cleaning days where the entire parish comes together to deep clean the building. Perhaps your family can organize such an effort and having the church spotless in time for the Nativity celebration.
8. Do Yard Work for an Elderly Neighbor
Winter can be a difficult time of year for the elderly. If you have any elderly neighbors or church members, consider asking them if you can assist them with yard work or errands. Let your older children rake leaves, shovel snow from the sidewalks, trim bushes, or pick up groceries or medication.
9. Volunteer at a Food Pantry
Many local food banks get donations during the holiday season. However, all of these donations need to be sorted and stored. Call your nearest food pantry to see if they accept children volunteers (not all locations do). If they do, sign up for a time to volunteer. You might organize food by type, create boxes to be delivered to needy families, or even give food out to others. I guarantee that deep and meaningful conversations will happen naturally with your child as you work together serving others.
10. Write Letters to Lonely Relatives
Finally, Christmas can be a lonely time for some people. A simple card or letter, however, can help brighten a day. Work with your children to create a list of relatives or church members who might be lonely–the newly widowed, those who live far away from family, people in nursing homes, etc. Divide your list among the children (and adults!) and each write to 1 or two people. While you are writing, say prayers for them, asking God to bless them and comfort them. You can even add their names to your prayer list in your icon corner and remember them during evening prayers.
As we continue on in the Nativity Fast, let us remember to love and serve others. And, let us provide an example of love and service for our children.
How does your family help others? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!