The highest end of true education is capable, compassionate service to others.
When our children struggle with learning, or face challenges such as medical conditions, we can devote extraordinary amounts of time and effort to help them. We cancel plans and sacrifice money so they can receive therapies and see specialists. We change diets, find special curricula, and spend our evenings learning ways to help even more. We try to give our children everything. But in our quest to give them the best, do we sometimes neglect that which might help them most?
More Than Self
Even as we serve our children, let us lead them to think of others. Even if he is still in diapers, a child can be encouraged to look, smile, or wave, rather than ignore someone when he is spoken to. In a high chair he can be helped to set down his cup, rather than drop it on the floor for someone else to pick up. As he grows into the preschool years, simple chores can be expected because “we all pitch in!” A simple visual list of tasks can assist this practice. In the classroom or homeschool the child can have a job that suits him. My daughter used to sharpen pencils for us every Tuesday. This bilateral task aided her own goals, as she helped prepare all of us for the homeschool day. As the child grows, so can his areas of service to the family.
We can expand service to neighborhood, church, and extended family. The child might help bake cookies or bring flowers to a next door neighbor recovering from surgery. He can color a stained glass image to present a church member when visiting the hospital. He can copy a verse of Scripture to insert into a card to Grandma. As he learns that all people in all roles need kindness, he can begin to replace innate inward preoccupation with a life of service.
Just because an animal is large, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want kindness; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo.
—A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned animal researcher diagnosed with autism, says that as the child enters the teen years, it becomes “essential for him or her to get outside the house and accept responsibility for tasks that other people want done. Dog-walking. Volunteering in a soup kitchen. Shoveling sidewalks.”¹ Find his interests, or simply find a need. Sometimes we must serve in ways that do not interest us! This, too, is good and right. Create a life of seeing—and easing—need. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”²
For years, despite the challenges of her childhood-onset schizophrenia, my daughter was given the daily task of placing cool water in the dog’s water bowl for our next door neighbor. Each day our neighbor went to work, and his dog was left in a run in the wooded backyard. My daughter could do this task, so she did. Our neighbor paid Michelle a small amount each week, and her service mattered. When she realized this, she took that first job seriously. “I think Chloe needs company,” she would tell me. Then I would watch her from the window as she would settle to the ground, petting the grateful Brittany spaniel and reading the book she had brought along to occupy herself.
Children’s literature can help foster compassion in your child. If a young child seems to lack compassion, cultivate this through picture books. Explore the faces of the characters. Ask, “Does he feel sad? How do you know? Why do you think he feels that way? How might you help him, if you were there?” As the child grows older and reads stories of hardship, he can notice how other people helped the main character take heart in dire trials. We can link our own situations to those in stories we read. Draw upon timeless lessons learned through literature. This theme will present itself again and again, as Seneca the Younger reminds us: “Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for a kindness.”
Look at What They CAN Do
Lord willing, someday our children with special needs will be adults. We try hard to remediate disabilities, but we must not hinder abilities. Instead, we must help them to know what they can accomplish. As Dr. Grandin reminds us, “Look at what they can do, not what they cannot do.”³ This will serve them well, even as they serve others.
Two summers ago my adult daughter confided in me. Among her other disabling conditions, she had just been diagnosed with kidney disease, and we had both grown sober about her future. I asked her if there was anything she wanted. She said yes. More than anything, she wanted to work. She longed to be able to give money to church, contribute to the household, and have money to spend like everyone else, she told me, big tears welling in her eyes. She already volunteered at a nursing home, but if it could be possible, she said, she wanted a job.
I listened, but I did not know whether it would be possible. She was not contagious, so this was not my concern; she was weakened physically. I knew that a job would help her look outside herself to serve in a more formal way, but I did not know whether anyone would hire her. After Michelle gave voice to this desire, she took matters into her own hands. On her volunteering day, she walked into the director’s office and closed the door behind her. She made this earnest plea: “I’ve been volunteering here for several years. It would be an honor for me to work here as your employee, if you have an opening.”
Michelle now works as an activities aide in the nursing home. She works two days a week, four hours at a time. This accommodates for her physical limitations and gives her the desire of her heart. When she is dressing for work, putting on her badge, and then whistling or chatting cheerily to residents as she wheels them to the dining room, I know that during those God-given hours of service, she is thinking not of herself or her troubles. She is thinking of the people in her care.
1 Temple Grandin, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum. (Mariner Books, 2014), 188.
2 Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse
3 Temple Grandin, quoted by David Chandler, speech at MIT, http://news.mit.edu/2015/temple-grandin-talk-0318, accessed September 23, 2016.
To teach children to be more compassionate toward others, see these simple 14-week programs for teaching through literature, Myself & Others: Lessons in Social Understanding, Habits, & Manners
This article first appeared in The Classical Teacher, 2018.