January 9, 2017

Honestly, I didn’t realize until I was an adult that Martin Luther King Day was designated as a National Day of Service. A Day on, Not a Day Off as I have now learned. That makes me feel selfish. As a social worker, I am in the business of serving others-I should know about MLK day. And, I should be signing up to do something for my community.

The truth is, professionals can struggle with something called compassion fatigue-literally being exhausted from helping others to that point that your level of caring diminishes. And parents can suffer from compassion fatigue as well. So, hearing that you SHOULD get your family involved in the community on a Monday might not be something that are really excited to do.

The idea of service to others

Yes, Martin Luther King Day is a holiday designed to celebrate the man for his accomplishments. That holiday was created in 1988. It was not until 1993 that the Federal government also created the designation of a day of service. (So, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad. After all, I was in high school before this decision was even made). And…it seems that communities have only been seeing engagement in events for the past decade or so.

So, how to you promote service in your family?

Although I can now see the importance of participating in some community activities designed to bring people together, I still struggle with how to teach this lesson to my own family.   I think the best place to start is with a discussion of the question posed by Dr. King himself

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

What are you doing for others?

For children under 5-

The concept of service may be a tiny bit abstract, but the idea of “helping” is definitely not. Toddlers and preschoolers love to be designated as “helpers.” Now, their help might not always be helpful (sometimes making a bigger mess than they are cleaning or taking longer for a task than we would like), but they do enjoy it. So capitalize on their helper spirit by offering them opportunities to do something for others. You might start by having them gather up old toys and stuffed animals and talk about how you can donate them to kids that don’t have as much stuff as you do.

For Children 5-12

These children are probably just happy to have a day off of school. While they are caring and considerate in theory, they might balk at the idea of spending their day off doing yard work for some agency or volunteering at some event instead of sleeping in. But, if you can find something that appeals to their sense of creativity and play, you might be able to engage them. Having kids design cards for residents of a nursing home and then delivering them might be a way to spike their interest.

For Teenagers

Dragging these kids out of bed before noon is an accomplishment in itself. But, not all community activities need to take place at sunrise. Having something productive to put on a college application letter or scholarship request might be incentive enough to get them moving. For these kids, focusing on larger community needs like attending a community council meeting or working on a project with a larger group of teens might just give them the peer interaction that they crave.

Lead By Example

Of course, it is difficult to encourage your children to be of service if you are barking orders from your couch. You will need to do some legwork beforehand to figure out what you, yourself, are willing to do for your community as well. Lead by example and show your children that this is important. You might start by participating in a charitable campaign at your office or volunteering for a project at your child’s school.

Smaller Scale Service

It is my opinion that we can teach the idea of service on a much smaller scale. While not the original intention of the National Day of Service, I think it’s okay to start small. Think about ways that you can have family members serve each other. Promote cooperation and general goodwill among siblings. So, if you’re not up to the task of volunteering…

  • Volunteer to take out the garbage if your spouse usually does it
  • Make breakfast for a parent
  • Do a chore for a sibling that they really hate without asking for anything in return
  • Call Grandma ‘just because’
  • Send a hand written note to a teacher, relative or neighbor thanking them for something
  • Pick up trash on your street
  • Give a box of doughnuts to the hungry person on the street corner
  • Donate blood

If you are able to participate in a large community project, do so. If not, do something for someone else that you know on a smaller scale. Share your stories of service with me.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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