No matter how servant-hearted we are, it’s all too common for our altruistic efforts to come screeching to a halt once little ones arrive on the scene. Parents of young children often find that mustering the energy to give back to the community when giving so much at home can feel like scraping the bottom of the emotional barrel. Having to pay a babysitter so you can leave the house to volunteer adds to the burden. Plus, even if we’d like to get our kids involved in helping others, it can be a struggle to find something little hands can actually do.
If we get creative, though, there are ways the whole family—even very young kids—can serve. Starting children with this practice from an early age shows them the importance (and the joy) of giving back and builds family connection. Here are 10 ways to serve others during the young family stage of life.
Help with childcare
If there’s one thing you can definitely do when your kids are underfoot, it’s to open the door to a few more. Babysitting for a friend can bring major relief in a time of need. (You’ve been there yourself, so you know.) Alternatively, perhaps you could be an extra pair of hands in the cry room during Mass or volunteer to provide childcare during a church event.
Deliver a meal
While kids’ “help” with cooking may not always be all that helpful, your home kitchen is a safe place for teachable moments about service. Let kids do their part to make a meal for a new mom, someone who’s had surgery, or your priest, and deliver it as a family.
Scout out age limits
Though many in-person service opportunities require participants to be 12, 16, or even 18 to help out, others are not so strict. I was thrilled to discover that Feed My Starving Children, a nationwide nonprofit with a location near me, allowed kids as young as 5 to help pack meals for the hungry. My children have now served there numerous times. A Google search, a call to your local church, or just asking around to other parents may yield surprising results.
Sponsor a child
It’s a financial commitment, but in my experience, sponsoring a child in need is worth every penny. Our family sponsors three children, each with the same gender and birth date of our own three kids. Though we’ve never met our “compassion children,” their pictures line our kitchen wall, reminding our kids to pray for them daily. Check out nonprofits Compassion or World Vision, which use sponsorship to provide education, medical care, and spiritual formation to children in poverty around the world.
Make birthday cards for people in nursing homes (and visit them)
One thing I’ll never forget from my summer working at a nursing home is the way the old folks’ faces lit up any time a child was near. In the work of everyday parenting, it’s easy to forget how much fun kids bring to the world. Could your children bring a smile to nursing home residents with a visit? Or if visiting strangers is out of your comfort zone, birthday cards made by little hands are another way to brighten an elderly person’s day.
Have kids donate their stuff
If we’re honest, many of our kids have far more toys than they need. (And if we’re really honest, so do their parents.) Going through toys or clothes to pick out what could be donated not only pares down the overflow of stuff in your home, it reminds kids of others who are not so fortunate. Make it a family affair by including some of your own belongings and drop off the items at the clothing closet or thrift store together.
Make blessing bags for homeless women
During one such recent closet purge, I discovered I had not one but five extra purses I wasn’t using. Instead of piling them in with my other donations, I decided to try something a little more meaningful. My kids helped me fill each purse with items a homeless woman could use, like toiletries, non-perishable snacks, water bottles, and feminine products. I now keep one in the family car so we can hand them out when we cross paths with a woman in need.
Make care packages for military personnel stationed overseas
A few years ago, my kids and I participated in a military care package playdate with some friends. Everyone brought supplies from an approved list and spent a couple of hours preparing boxes of goodies for men and women stationed overseas. Even the youngest kiddos were able to assist in the task. Visit Support Our Troops for guidelines.
Let your spouse serve
With little ones around, sometimes the best way to serve is not to do so yourself, but to allow your spouse the opportunity. My husband and I trade off weeks singing and playing at Mass in our church’s music ministry, while the other partner sits with the kids.
Know that you’re serving already
Finally, a bit of encouragement. Don’t forget that, as a parent to young children, you are serving others every single day. Someday when kids are older, you’ll have more freedom to be Christ’s hands and feet out in the world. But for now, there’s great value in doing so in your own home.
Originally published November 12, 2018.