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5 Ways to Overcome Barriers to Family Service

What’s stopping you from building a family culture of intentional service to others? In this excerpt from her book, Heidi Indahl examines five common barriers to family service and suggests strategies for overcoming them.

The following article is adapted from 67 Ways to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids.

by Heidi Indahl

Let’s acknowledge at the outset that barriers can make service difficult. They may be perceptual, practical, or even both. In this article, I address some common barriers and provide a few ideas for overcoming them.

“We don’t have time for this.”

Remember that (1) service is a faith-based activity, and (2) doing faith-based activities as a family is important. Family researcher Loren D. Marks notes two commonalities among families who regularly practice their faith together. First, these families set aside regular time for faith-based activities. Second, these families continue setting aside time for shared faith activities even when faced with objections from their children or when the activities go against popular culture (Rutledge, 2011). So we need to make time for family service.

“If you have too much to do,

with God’s help you will find time to do it all.”

—St. Peter Canisius

In building a family culture of service, start small by integrating service into existing daily routines. For suggestions on teaching service from a very young age, see the many project and chore suggestions found in the sections “Building a Helping Culture in the Family” and “Reaching Out without Leaving Home” in my book, 67 Ways to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids.

You can also begin with some of the resources suggested in the section, “Talking about the Tough Stuff.” Many of the children’s books in that section can lead to conversation, prayer, and action. After reading a book about homelessness, for example, add to your child’s bedtime petitions a prayer for homeless children in your community and beyond. Over the next days, discuss homelessness in your community during family dinner or on car rides between activities. Then choose a project from this book (or ask your child to suggest their own) that can be done locally. Through these small additions to normal routines, you are making time for service.

Some families do an intentional service project on a regular basis, perhaps monthly or seasonally. Others make time to have regular, ongoing projects. Some choose to do activities mostly at home, while others prefer to interact with others in their community. Experiment with the ideas from this book, create your own and, whatever you do, don’t stop if you feel your small contributions won’t make a difference. There is no minimum or maximum when it comes to integrating service into your family routines. The Holy Spirit can work with whatever you have to offer!

“Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

“My kids are too little, or too far apart in age, for family service.”

Service outside the home can seem overwhelming to parents of an infant or toddler. In truth, many infants and toddlers (and even younger preschoolers) are not yet ready for service outside the home, and that is just fine! Someday your child may be ready to visit a homeless shelter or organize their own garage sale for charity.

With younger children, you may naturally focus on the activities in the section “Building a Helping Culture in the Family” in my book, 67 Ways to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids. These activities will build a foundation in your child’s heart and a habit in your family that will pay off in the years to come.

On the other hand, some families rise to the challenge and successfully integrate young children—and even infants—into their family service activities. Professor of theology Susan Windley-Daoust recounts how her small children often did a better job than the adults at warmly welcoming the homeless and hungry people at a local shelter. Even her infant son became an instrument of grace when a homeless man was allowed to cradle him. “I never thought that at age six months, my son would be doing the works of mercy more effectively than anyone else in the family,” she says (“Motherhood, Hospitality, and the Catholic Worker: Vocations that Heal”).

When working with a mixed-age group of children, provide a variety of activities or combine activities to create a full family experience. My book includes activities for a wide range of ages, avoiding those unsuitable for young children, unless noted otherwise. You can adapt or combine most of them to include all members of the family in some way.

For example, in serving at a funeral, the younger children can color placemats for the meal, the middle school-aged children can make a salad or dessert, and the teenagers can serve the meal or assist at the Mass. Before or after attending a funeral as a family, tie the experience together using the resources and discussion questions regarding death and dying found in the section “Talking about the Tough Stuff.”

And no matter what kind of service you do with your kids, bringing it back into prayer and conversation can point all of you toward love of God through love of others.

“We don’t have money for extras as it is.”

A friend pointed out to me, upon reading a draft of this manuscript, that her experience growing up was much different than mine. In her parish, stewardship always seemed like a code for “we need money.” She noted that in every parish she has observed, a few people are the doers of projects and most others prefer giving financially to help.

We can’t overlook the need for money in some service projects. In fact, many of the projects in this text contain opportunities to creatively provide financial support for them. Try, though, to think of stewardship not as an either/or, but rather as a both/and. Needs in our communities require both money and actions.

If your family is not able to spend money to serve others at this time, don’t worry that you won’t be able to help. You can bless others by using, in plenty of ways, what you already have and by being who you are.

“I don’t have the knowledge or skills to help someone else.”

Remember that family service involves a cycle of preparing, acting, and reflecting. Your family does not need specific knowledge or skills to begin serving someone. In fact, gaining that knowledge or skill is its own step in preparing for service. When you observe the needs of a community, group, or person you want to serve, you are also assessing whether you have the skills to meet that need. Perhaps you can gain a new skill or expand your knowledge through conversation about one of the corporal works of mercy, as suggested in “Talking about the Tough Stuff.”

You may conclude that a specific activity is not right for your family right now, and that is okay. You have then learned something that might help you identify a person who is right for the job. You may be the “eyes and ears” of the body of Christ this week, instead of the “hands and feet.”

Still unsure of what you can do? Start by identifying what is already happening around you. What does your church do? Consider committing in some small way to at least one opportunity to serve announced at church. Even if you participate alone instead of with your family, you will serve others, set an example for your children, and begin to discover the activities for which your family may be particularly well suited.

“I am afraid to take my kids into that environment.”

We live in a crazy and sometimes scary world. I would be the last person to tell you that you should serve anyone, anywhere, at any time with no regard for the safety and needs of your own family. That being said, unexamined fear is not a good reason to avoid serving.

If your concern is safety at an activity, you can speak with the coordinators of an event or organization and perhaps make a visit to the site alone prior to bringing your children. Your concern might be the location of the volunteer site, the type of work involved, or the people being served. If your concern is warranted, you might support the activity from a different location, such as helping to stuff envelopes or organizing materials in advance. In
67 Ways to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids, I have not included many opportunities directly related to visiting the imprisoned. Prisons and other such institutions have age limits for volunteering, and serving there may not fit your family. In the “Tough Stuff” section, however, I have included a few ideas for how your family can still serve prisoners. These ideas can be generalized to other projects that might have their own safety considerations.

Are you concerned about personal discomfort? Well, the only way to move past that is simply to put yourself out there. Educating yourself and your family about the specific place you’d like to visit can go a long way toward easing the discomfort of a new situation. If you need to, take small steps and start with activities you can participate in from a distance and work toward more direct involvement. After an activity, allow your family to share with one another their experiences of the event openly and honestly. Remind your children and yourself that most of us grow into things gradually through practice.

Do you still have questions or concerns about how to begin cultivating a culture of service in your kids? You can connect with me at my online home, Work and Play, Day by Day.

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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