Happy, Thanks, Giving

“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, crossing a foul stream of sewage.  Without complaint, however, our four kids captured the spirit of our first “service trip,” and cleaned floors, collected trash, dug holes for plants, painted and topped it off with a raucous soccer game.  After working harder than ever, they couldn’t wait to do it again, the next day and the next….

I wondered who’d kidnapped my kids and replaced them with these unusually obedient look-alikes.

At home, they 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.

Christopher and William Scrubbing Desks

But when we arrived at our worksite in Mexico, it was as if they drank a dose of perspective along with their breakfast of huevos rancheros and corn tortillas.  They at least somewhat realized the point of our multiple lectures – we live comfortable lives.

Our children made friends, learned to communicate and worked tirelessly, making me realize their vast untapped potential.  Our days side-by-side with the poor Mexican community made it virtually impossible to focus selfishly on our own problems.  Far from the things that normally make life fun and easy for us – the Wii, air conditioning, 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.  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 more than I do — 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 – but…more prone to worry and unhappiness,” Weissbourd explains.  In other words, we run ourselves ragged to make our kids happy, and they aren’t that happy.

He suggests we change our paradigm and help our children look outwardly instead.  As parents, if we want moral children, we need to help them see themselves as part of a larger community – a community that needs their participation.

Families certainly don’t have to trek to Mexico or other countries to serve and experience character-building opportunities.  We can readily focus on the needs of others in our own homes and neighborhoods.

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 – and can’t all our families use more of that this season?

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