If we want our kids to be good people, we have to lead the way.

At the heart of the human experience are relationships. The good ones enrich our lives in ways we never knew possible. The bad ones make us question everything about it.

From birth, an infant’s first experiences are shaped by that most basic and primal relationship between mother and child as she or he looks for food for survival and protection. As children get older, needs may shift—thankfully, they learn to feed themselves—but the importance of that primary relationship does not.

My oldest is about to graduate from eighth grade. I don’t recall it being quite such a big deal when I was fourteen, but a lot of years have passed since then, and it’s safe to say I scratch my head often about the things that seem to be important today.

What I do remember is when we first started taking Michael, my oldest, to his first volunteer service experiences, wondering what impact any of that might possibly have on a five-year-old boy who seemed barely able to sit still at the time.

But I consider parenting one giant science experiment, and we started down an early path of service with little more than a dose of hope that it would help cultivate a kind kid.

But as he prepares to move onto high school, I see a young man who has already learned how to serve and how to see beyond himself.

Perhaps the most meaningful undertaking in these past few years has been his dedication to creating (from scratch) and leading our school’s Eco Club for the past three years. It’s an idea he crafted, borne from little more than kitchen table conversations and a few intentional sharings of articles and experiences.

As I often say, there is nothing extraordinary about the Yuskas. Like everyone else, we are just trying to make sense of this journey and to find meaning in as many places as we can along the way.

Michael gives me hope that when intentional parenting, early exposure/experiences, and kids’ open hearts collide, great things can and will happen.  That’s a formula we all can follow.

As such, what we do and how we act powerfully shape our children, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. I am always intrigued when parents say they don’t want to raise selfish or entitled children, but fail to understand the role they play in that. Children learn by what they see and what they  experience, so one of the most powerful ways to teach our children is by our own example. 

Service to others can obviously play a key role in that. And I like to take a broad definition of service.

Sometimes we think building a school in Haiti or even building a home for Habitat for Humanity is what we need to introduce to have a meaningful impact. I would argue, as with most things, it is the accumulation of all the little things that has the biggest impact. It’s the door held open for someone at the store, the person you let in front of you in traffic (I’m still working on that one since I always seem to be running five minutes behind and in a bit of a frenzy), the dinner made for someone at school who’s going through a cancer treatment, the weekly food collection at church, the flowers for a friend when they are blue.  It’s the rhythm of how we live our lives that will speak loudest to our children.

 In terms of the bigger service, it will naturally come. I believe we are called to this human experience to be there for one another. What that looks like, as with all things in life, has many seasons and many stages.

But if we teach our children well in those early years, it will naturally evolve. Houses in Haiti will get built because that is just the next logical step, and some of the big things we all seem to struggle with  and see every day – like homelessness in our cities, hungry children, people dying alone – will not seem as intractable, because we will all be working toward their end.

I believe this with all my heart. And the good news is that the answer is fairly simple. Gandhi was on to something when he said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we all did that—in ways big and more importantly, small—we would see change and we would raise the next generation (through our example) to walk through life knowing they ARE the change. That they are responsible for their neighbor and their brother and their planet in a way that does not feel overwhelming. It’s just what you do.

And the worry about selfish and entitled children? Well, that one would not need to occupy any more space in our overcrowded heads.

Who isn’t ready for that?