Giving to others is something we grow into as we age. Children are not naturally givers. Sure, they have the occasional charming rogue generous impulse, perhaps even harbingers of the lovely character they'll develop later, but in general they're good at demanding that their own needs be met, and not good at meeting those of others.
When my kids were little, I found this distressing. I didn't have the benefit of hindsight, of knowing that they would grow up to be perfectly splendid much of the time and selfish and unreasonable no more often than most humans. I decided I would force the issue. I had a vague sense that if they practiced generous acts, unnatural though they might be, eventually it might become rote. Unshakable. Habitual.
What better season for this enforced, joyless giving than Lent? We used to observe those six weeks together, as a family, and when my kids were 3 and 5 I took an old jumbo peanut butter jar, covered it with stickers spelling out "JOB JAR," and painstakingly cut out over 150 little slips of paper, each with a task description typed on it. Each family member had his or her own special color of paper, but the slips were folded and then tossed together like so much tricolor pasta. The idea was that every morning you had to pick a slip of paper in your color, and do whatever it said at some point during the day.
One problem at the beginning was that the kids didn't read. No matter - their enthusiasm was undiminished by the fact that they had to have their sentences read to them. Afterwards I stuck a piece of tape to their paper slip and they were allowed to add it to the others. My daughter's went on the oven, my son's on the kitchen island, wobbly rows of tasks that grew over the course of the season.
The hardest part was thinking up enough jobs for everyone. I was driven by the biblical sense of service, of serving others. The concept of charity requires that the person being acted upon be in need in some way; I was comfortable with a liberal interpretation of "need". My younger child "needed" to feel included, for instance; so sometimes the job of the older one was "let your sister join you and your friends when they come over." I sometimes "needed" a reminder to slow down and enjoy the process, not the result, so sometimes the kids' job was to help me cook, even when the result was much more cleanup work for me.
Just for fun, every year there was one slip for each child that read simply "Mama's Day." On that day, they did not get in trouble, no matter what. They never abused the privelege, but on that day I did all their tasks, made them their favorite foods, let them watch TV and play video games, asked nothing in return. I envisioned that some day they would return the favor, that being the recipient of simple giving would somehow take root and bloom in them.
I am happy to say that has happened, though of course I can't prove that the Jar had anything to do with it. Both of my kids take joy in doing for others. They are clever, creative, and almost giddy about giving, whether it's planning their dad's birthday or surprising a friend with a thoughtful gesture. Not all the time, of course, hell no. Like the rest of us, they can be real beasts, whiny and selfish and thoughtless. But when they shine, they shine.
At some point, maybe five years ago, the job jar fell by the wayside. We were disenchanted with other aspects of the church calendar; Lent is no longer formally observed in our home. We're all too busy to add tasks to our day without good reason. But I miss those days, the joy of watching them pull out their slips of paper and discover a new small way to change the shape of someone's day.