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Serving During the Holidays–Ideas to Help Motivate Kids to Serve

How do you tear your kids away from the TV, the video game, the computer and onto a service activity?  Bribe them?  Flip all the switches in the breaker box so that all the power is cut-off?  Threaten them while also gritting your teeth,”You are going to have FUN!”

I’ve worked with teenagers and many of them “groan” when you say that it is time to do a service project.  Researchers show that toddlers want to help others, that there is even a physical response when they see another toddler that needs help.  What is it about service that turns this propensity to serve into a groaning, eye rolling 12 year old?

I believe that it is partly because service is work.  It is.  Often times it is fun.  Often times it is easy.  But, almost all the time, there is an element of work involved.

There are many activities out there that engage our kids and our families. If you want your family to serve more, there is some stiff competition you’ll need to address to gain their willing buy-in to do the work of serving.

You want to get your children serving more?  Then you need to know:

Newton’s First Law of Motion applies. 
Things in motion tend to remain in motion.  Things at rest tend to stay at rest.
Kids that serve tend to continue to serve.  Kids that are at rest tend to stay at rest.

If you rarely ask you kids to serve, it will take more effort to get them going to serve.  At the same time, the amazing thing about that rule and how it crosses into service: once they start serving, they will gain so much from it and want to do it AND even suggest to do it themselves.

Here are some things that I have noticed about service activities and children (teenagers through little ones).  I hope that others with more insights will comment to this post and share what has worked for them.  I’ll start first.

Gettin’ Excited About Service #1: 
Serve Often

Okey-dokey . . . that is good and all and not really a revelation  . . . um, how do we get a jump start on all that “good feelingness” about serving?

Here is where the next law comes in:

Gettin’ Excited About Service #2: 
Kids Love SECRET Missions

Growing up, my family would “pixie” another family each Christmas.  It was a huge deal where we would drop something off at a family’s house during the holiday season, anonymously.  It had to be a secret.  Sometimes we dropped off something once a week for a month, sometimes everyday for a week.  But, EVERY TIME, it had to be a secret drop-off.

Mom and Dad would be at the front, driving and navigating.  Two sisters would exit the van to do the drop.  A third sister would hold the sliding van door open, poised to close it ASAP when the sisters returned, while the fourth sister spied from the back giving details on the drop.   Now, I won’t say that we were the quietest pixies, especially when we were almost caught a couple of times  . . . I’m sure that the whole neighborhood could hear our high-pitched squealing, chattering, and laughing about the drop-off snafu.  Our ages when we started:  12, 10, 8, and 6.   We all loved “pixieing” at Christmas time.  We loved it so much that once I was able to drive, we would often decide to whip up a batch of cookies and go “pixie” a friend for fun.

A friend of mine does something similar with her very tall, almost grown, teenage boys.  And, they get into it so much that they will ARMY CRAWL to the door in order to approach the delivery spot in a stealth-like manner.

My own boys favor those service acts where we have put a “secret” spin on it.  They regularly ask to be Secret “Service” Agents when we do our “pennies of time” adventures.  And, hands down, the most favorite act of service is what they call now– “Secret Vending Machine Ninja.”

This is my 4 year old posing patiently while trying to push the buttons on the machine, as he cannot pass up a chance to do that repeatedly. 
He’s a multi-tasker, you know.
Oh, and that is his secret “ninja” outfit.

Okey-dokey . . . So, we’ll call what we do a “secret”–what now?

Gettin’ Excited About Service #3: 
Focus on Your Kids’ Interests

Does your son feel inseparable from his friends?  Involve his friends.

Is your daughter glued to her video game?  Could she share that skill and interest with another, possibly younger, child?  One evening, we were at a party, and a friend’s eight year old showed my four year old how to work the video game for over an hour.  SERIOUSLY, I am sure that it was very painful to watch my son inexpertly FAIL like a bajillion times, but he was very kind to my son.  (And, I got a whole hour to talk to adults.)

I know that it might seem backwards, focusing on the interest and talents before the service need.  In my experience, it is when you start with the interests and talents that you are able to get the kids more involved . . . and then the service need comes to light with a good brainstorming session.

Gettin’ Excited About Service #4:
Involve the Kids When You Plan It

Get their input.  When you ask for their input, do not say NO to their suggestions no matter how out-landish.  Try and see if there is a way to reasonably use the suggestion or just keep encouraging them to offer up more suggestions.

Repeat:  Do not say NO to their suggestions.  That is the kiss of death in inspiring them to help others.

Gettin’ Excited About Service #5:
Have Fun
Everyone I know wants to have fun.  And, by teaching your kids that they can have fun when they are serving, it helps drown out all those other competing activities that win over kids more easily.
  • *YOU* should be having fun.  Kids smell adult reluctance a mile away and then they play on it.  If you are involved and having fun, then they are more likely to as well.
  • Make it a party.  Small or big.  Basically, you can do anything and put the word “party” at the end of it and all of a sudden it will be an amazingly fun time!!  I love the Holiday Game Party suggested at
  • Dress up.  Seriously, kids to love to dress-up.  Use their interest whether it is robots, superheroes, fancy dresses, or kittens.  Not only is it fun, but once they are dressed, they are investing themselves in the service project and investing themselves in a way that shows that they want the event to go well.  (and they don’t even know it)
  • Involve a treat.  I can’t remember all the times my mom was able to get us involved with work by promising a treat as part of the process.
I know that these suggestions may seem full of frippery and nonsense.  And, they may be.  The essense of what is needed is a way to “catch” their attention . . . and then they get busy serving and don’t even realize it.  Once you’ve got good “service motivation” going, you won’t have to use these types of frippery and nonsense if you don’t want to because they will have started to recognize the good things that they get out of serving and how powerful their service is for others . . . which leads us to one of the most important elements in building motivation to serve . . . .
Gettin’ Excited About Service #6:
Time for Reflection
Some people serve because they believe it is a cornerstone of being a good human-being, some people serve because they feel compelled to give back because they have been blessed, others serve because of religious teachings and commandments that they live by . . . no matter what the motivation is that you have for wanting to serve with your children, these experiences are more memorable if you allow the quiet, reflective space to ask/think/talk about the service that was given.
With my young boys, we talk about:
  • if we helped in the way that we planned to help
  • how they think the recipient felt when we provided service
  • what they felt when they helped
Often times, we talk about how the person smiled, said thank you, or otherwise showed emotion in response to the service.
These conversations start a momentum to allow the act of serving to touch their hearts and start to explain those intangibles of serving.
Gettin’ Excited About Service #7:
Don’t Hestitate, Just Do It
Seriouly, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to the motivation to serve.  The two most popular questions that revolve around in my brain.
“Is this dumb?”

“Is this really going to work?”

Don’t listen to those doubts.  Serving with your children can be a marvelous experience for you, the children, and those receiving the service.  I’m not saying that at the end of every experience that we all want to hold hands and sing “kumbaya” . . . but more often than not, everyone will leave with a good experience.

S0, what do you do to motivate others to serve?  How do you grab your children’s attention and gain their interest in helping another person?

Fourth Tinsel Post: “Pennies of Time” for the Holidays– Our 2012 Family Holiday Service Project

Third Tinsel Post: “Pennies of Time” for the Holidays–Service Advent Calendar

Second Tinsel Post: “Pennies of Time” for the Holidays–Shopping 

First Tinsel Post: “Pennies of Time” for the Holidays–Community Focus

For Easy Acts of Kindness to Get Started: