I’ll never forget the time that a Franciscan sister came to give a talk at my parish, and my whole understanding of my vocation to motherhood changed.
She lived and worked in an inner-city Chicago neighborhood, and as she sat among the well-coiffed ladies of our women’s group, she gently urged us, “Find ways to practice the works of mercy as much as you can, even every day.”
Later on, we were discussing her talk, and we realized that those of us in the group who were mothers felt that we were practicing the works of mercy every day. We were clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and so on, in the forms of our small children, day in and day out.
After that conversation, I saw my vocation differently. It dawned on me suddenly that the daily sacrifice of motherhood is a privileged opportunity to love, serve and obey Christ himself.
Love that “begins at home” and spreads to others
Of course, most acts of generosity and self-sacrifice begin in the home. As Mother Teresa said in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Love begins at home.” And the demands of raising little children make it difficult to add any other acts of service.
Yet many of us don’t want to stop there. We want to love and serve outside of our immediate families and find ways to practice the works of mercy outside our own front doors.
But how on earth are we supposed to do that when we have babies and toddlers in tow? Most volunteer opportunities aren’t kid-friendly, and donating to a cause we support would go way over a young kid’s head.
We want to raise kids who are helpful, grateful, and service-oriented. But how can we model service and generosity when our kids are very young?
Works of mercy with kids
I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, and asked friends for advice too. The result was this list of ways to practice the corporal works of mercy with young kids in tow.
Hopefully it can inspire your own efforts, especially as we head into the holiday season!
Visit elderly and homebound friends and relatives
A visit from a cute little baby or toddler is sure to brighten anyone’s day!
Volunteer in a community garden
You don’t have to have impressive gardening skills to do this! Just show up willing to work, and they’ll tell you what to do. Young kids love watering plants and digging up weeds, so this is a great outlet for all that digging and pouring energy.
Make homemade Valentine cards for elderly and lonely friends and family members
My sister started this sweet tradition in our family and it’s my favorite way to celebrate the holiday every year.
Put together blessing bags for people experiencing homelessness
A thoughtful and practical gift is always appreciated, along with a smile and some friendly conversation. Here’s exactly how to put these together.
Bring cookies to your neighbors in December
Every year, my kids love to make and decorate Christmas cookies, and every year we end up with way more than my family can eat. So we began this tradition of taking extra cookies to the neighbors sort of out of necessity. But it turns out this is a great way to make friends with your neighbors and build goodwill in the neighborhood.
Take dinner to friends who are sick or have a new baby
Signing up for a meal train is a very hands-on way to teach kids about kindness, as they can help make the food and help deliver it. My kids love helping carry in pans of yummy food to friends who just had a baby, especially if they can sneak a peek at the cute newborn!
Volunteer with your local Catholic Worker house
There are about 180 Catholic Worker houses around the world, and most could use some volunteer help, often with things that kids can join (such as gardening). You can read about the family with young children who run my local Catholic Worker house here.
Sign up for the “angel tree” at Christmas
In December, many parishes have some kind of “giving tree” or “angel tree” in which donation requests are placed on the branches. Fulfilling some of those requests is a visible act of service that kids can participate in. We like to include our kids in helping choose the gift and then bring it back to church, so they are part of the entire process.
Bring donations to your local food pantry or clothing drive
Another very visible way for kids to help out is choosing and delivering donations for a local food bank or goods and clothing drive. They can help choose items to donate.
When appropriate, bring children to funerals
It doesn’t get mentioned as much, but “Bury the dead” is one of the works of mercy, and it may be appropriate to bring your children to a funeral of a friend or family member. My kids have joined my husband and me at two funerals in the past three years.
Of course, use your discretion; I prefer to ask if it’s okay to bring them, and you may want to have an alternative activity available for them. You’ll need to be prepared to answer their questions about something that can be very mystifying to them.
But when handled with sensitivity and care, bringing children to funerals is a way to teach virtues like respect, compassion, and kindness. I told my kids, “We are here to show love and kindness to our friends who are sad that their grandma has died.” It’s a very visible way kids can be part of practicing the works of mercy.