One of the greatest struggles I have as a parent is figuring out when to cover for my kids when they don’t do what they are supposed to do, and when to stand firm on what they’ve been told to do so that they learn to be responsible human beings who serve others well. I don’t want to enable them by being too gracious (licensure), and I don’t want to communicate that they can be right with and God to the extent that they keep the rules (legalism). Daily I’m bombarded by questions like:
- Do I do the dishes tonight, or do I leave them to do it alone, knowing I’ll be disappointed with the finished product anyway?
- The bathroom floor is covered in dirty clothes and wet towels … again. Do I simply handle it because it takes 30 seconds, or do I pull them their game or TV show and embarrass them in front of others?
- The door to the backyard is open … again. Do I call them in from playing with their friends and wait 15 minutes to teach them a lesson in home economics, or do I simply close the door and move on?
In my struggle, I’m come to see more and more the value of teaching my children to see responsibility as opportunities to serve, and doing so by serving them. I’m loosely referring to it as “the serving circle.”
The Serving Circle
The Serving Circle has four parts that usually lead into one another, yet at different places for different children and different tasks at any given moment.
- I serve you. At this beginning stage, parents are fully serving their children in any given task because for a variety of reasons the children cannot do it at all. Yet even here, the children are learning to serve and be responsible. My daughter is 17 months and barely talking, but she joyfully takes diapers to the trash, puts napkins in her lap, and blows kisses when told it’s time for nap. She is learning to serve and be responsible even as someone is completely serving her.
- I teach you to serve. This is an admittedly trying but necessary stage in which children are repeatedly and patiently given specific instructions on how to do a given task or responsibility. I think the key here is that parents instruct by doing. In other words, the parents are still largely doing the work, but gradually children become more and more capable of doing it well on their own. It’s important here to set your children up for success, especially by choosing responsibilities that you know they can do and that bring visible joy to those they serve. An example in our home would be the boys’ ability to make their own breakfast. Cereal, oatmeal or even pancakes from scratch are now well within their abilities without parental supervision, but only after years of doing so alongside of them, patiently instructing at different levels as we went.
- You serve others. The child at this stage has total independence when it comes to serving through the fulfillment of a certain set of chores, and many times he or she is happy to do them because they know the joy it brings them and others. In no uncertain terms, your child is becoming a servant leader: one who inspires others because they are both humble and confident in their given work.
- We serve each other. Even the most willing, humble, helpful responsible child will sin … and sin a lot. He or she will still need someone to serve them … to cover for them. Likewise, even if the most admirable, gospel-centered parent will need children to help them in many ways. When both parents and children are serving one another, neither are as likely to feel they have license to do whatever they want to do. Likewise, there are fewer wagers and deals on who will do what—competition regarding who performs better on their given tasks. Rather, there is a teamwork atmosphere where are all willing to do whatever it takes so that others and the entire family unit have joy, not only in finishing the work, but also in doing it.
The serving circle is admittedly difficult at times, especially if you have multiple children learning multiple chores at multiple levels. Parents need quick-witted wisdom to make lightening-fast parenting decisions as they work through the day—decisions based not only on the condition of their own heart at the time, but where each child is with any given responsibility. It’s akin to spinning different sized plates at different speeds on different kinds of sticks and poles … while blindfolded and walking in a circle.
I also don’t mean to imply that by simply incorporating the serving circle into your parenting, your life will instantly get better. The second part of the circle alone makes it clear that the goal is create a culture of service over time. But the goal is worth it, because service neither empowers the legalist nor cuts loose the rebel. Service creates a culture of grace and responsibility in the home that all benefit from.