Do you expect your children to care for you in your old age? Or what if you get sick before you are old? What if you get cancer while your children are teenagers? Do you expect them to care for you then? How will they learn how to care for you? Oh, I don’t mean the business of dressing wounds or helping you up and down from the bed or the toilet. I mean, how will they learn the compassion, the true Christian charity required for such care? You must begin in them a root of selflessness.
Now, you may be inclined to argue that some people are just naturally more selfless than others. I certainly agree; we do not all seem to be equally tempted by the same sins. I am given to sins of the belly. My life’s struggle has been to shut my mouth rather than stick another cookie in it. Many people I know can win that battle without really trying, but they are given to some other sin that does not tempt me. All that to say, yes, some people are naturally more selfish than others—they have a more difficult battle than others resisting being selfish. But love of self is one of those besetting sins common to all of us to some extent and out of which spring many sins that are merely symptoms of selfishness. We all have to fight it—some may have to fight harder than others, but we all must fight it.
The good news is selflessness—the opposite of selfishness—is an attribute that can be planted and cultivated in all of us, even our children. Have you ever cut a branch from a tree or shrub that you particularly liked and then stuck it in a jar of water and set it in the sun? The nutrients in the water and the magic in the sun will cause that bare branch to sprout roots within a couple weeks. If that doesn’t work, you can put some extra nutrients in that water that will aid the process along. The bottom line is that it is possible to produce roots where once there were none. Similarly, we can start a root of selflessness in our children if we will do the work of nourishing it.
So what are the nutrients required for this process of establishing a root of selflessness in our children? The first and best thing you can do as a parent is model selflessness for your children, and really that will be the central component in this rooting process. If your children are the bare and rootless branches, you are the water—the key nutrient that ensures success. You may be tempted to say that you have been nothing but selfless since your children were conceived, modeling it for them every day by your service to them. If you are doing a good job parenting, that is probably true, but it is also expected, just your reasonable service. You will have a hard time selling what you do for your children as selflessness. Instead, look for ways to model selflessness outside the immediate family.
There are a million ways to teach your children selflessness:
Mow the grass for Grandpa instead of playing ball on Saturday morning.
Make a meal for a sick neighbor instead of watching your favorite TV show.
Take on an improvement project at your church instead of starting that next book.
Serve at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve in lieu of a feast at home with family.
Host your church’s next party at your home instead of waiting for someone else to volunteer.
Host friends and family in your home frequently instead of watching a movie.
This list isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of things you can do with your children to model selflessness for them. But note the common thread in the few items I have listed here: in each case, you give something up. In order to truly be selfless, you have to sacrifice something important to you and replace it by doing something for someone else. If you want life abundant, you have to be willing to lose what you have.
The Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:3 exhorts us to “esteem others better than [ourselves].” That really is the hard part, but also the most important part. It begins by looking around to see what others’ needs are. The most important nutrient in getting that root of selflessness started in your bare branches is training yourself and then your children to be more attentive to the needs of others than to the needs of self. Does someone need a chair? Give yours up. Does someone need a lunch? Share yours. Is someone sad? Be a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Is someone in pain? Look for ways to bring comfort. All of these begin with paying more attention to others than to self. If you focus on self, you will never notice the needs of others.
Someday soon—even sooner than you think—it will be time to plant those branches you’ve been rooting out in the world. If you have started roots in them, they will grow big and strong. What a joy it will be to you in your old age to see your children serving others, bringing food to the hungry and comfort to the sick. That is Christian charity at its finest, and it all begins with getting a root of selflessness started in them now.