Our culture sells Valentine’s Day as a day of romance and love. But what does real love mean? And what are ways that we can teach our children how to genuinely love others?

A few years ago, on my son’s first day of junior high, I drove him to school. For most, junior high tends to successfully land some emotional and mental punches in our histories and self-perceptions. I remember talking about some of his exciting anticipations and his constricting worries. I also vividly remember the charge I gave him to be a noticer and builder of people that first day.

He later told me that he found a boy in the lunchroom sitting alone and sat with him. This boy loved the fact that Alex was a friend to him in junior high. The boy’s mom later told my wife that Alex had made a profound difference in this boy’s life throughout junior high. He has become a contributor in the rolling credits within some of his peers’ lives.  

Real love

All of us tend to be consumers by nature. We view relationships as transactions and consuming as powerful. Even if we don’t put it in these exact words, our attitude is often, “I’ll love you if you love me back.” This is more about having control, guarantees and power.

However, that is not real love. One of the most significant ways to love another person is by contributing to their lives, regardless of whether we benefit from it. This could be seen as weak in culture, but it is actually trustworthy, strong and courageous love. Consider Paul, James and Peter’s words to the church. They used the word “servant.” To serve means to love through not only your actions but your intentions and thoughts. To have an identity as a servant of Christ gives the internal building blocks to serve others without expectation. Being a consumer is actually easier and less courageous than being a contributor. I have enjoyed teaching young men how their sensitivity and compassion toward others can be quite powerful and masculine in the context of being profound, trustworthy contributors in others’ lives.

Jesus instructs us in the Bible to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). And what better demonstration of what real love is than Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising again so that we could have a relationship with him? His actions were the ultimate contribution to each of our lives and one that continues every day.

We are called to be contributors

God calls each of us to be contributors within his kingdom and in the lives of others. In fact, humanity began as contributors within the Garden of Eden. Sin turned Adam and Eve into consumers, which created self-preservation, blame and self-protection. In Philippians 2:4, it says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.” That is unnatural and difficult, yet deeply loving and trustworthy. God has given us what we need for our minds to shape our brain’s selfish tendencies toward love.

Teaching our kids to be contributors within their relationships will take grace and patience. It will show them how to love others through their intentions, thoughts, words and actions for the rest of their lives. Philippians 2:5 goes on to say, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” The key in this verse is that we can direct our minds toward this end by having it influenced through a vibrant relationship with Christ.

Unfortunately, the world regularly teaches us ways to consume in the endless and futile pursuit of happiness, safety, control, power and pleasure in our relationships. How, then, can we teach our kids to become contributors rather than consumers? First, let’s take a look at the characteristics of each type of person.

Differences between contributors and consumers

In my experience as a father, therapist and researcher, I have found distinct differences between kids who are contributors and those who are consumers, even though, many times, they look very similar externally. Kids in both categories can be friendly, pleasant and respectful. In other words, on the outside, they can look quite similar.  However, here are a few characteristics that stand out.

Consumers

Kids who are consumers often:

  • act respectfully or do things for others to get something in return
  • are less empathetic
  • look for strategic ways to gain affirmation and admiration from others
  • recognize ways to use other people’s emotions and thoughts for their own benefit
  • see people as either useful or useless
  • tend to seek approval
  • search for ways to get more for themselves
  • compete and help others in order to be noticed
  • smile with an underlying need.

Contributors

On the other hand, children who are contributors:

  • often do things for others without expecting something in return
  • are genuinely empathetic toward others
  • develop genuine humility and see others as important
  • learn to listen to others attentively
  • look to see other people’s needs and offer help
  • use encouraging words to build others up without needing their love
  • see people as valuable and loveable
  • smile out of love and connection toward the other person
  • compete in order to grow and enjoy
  • help others to serve them
  • tend to seek connection
  • either display or are actively working on patience, gentleness and empathy.

Contributor children look beyond their own perspective to love others and try to genuinely see the world from other people’s perspectives. This requires confidence because real love comes with risks such as betrayal, rejection and pain. Contributors love others without always looking for something in return or seeking self-protection (which is what the original story of St. Valentine was all about).

Kids with a contributor mindset tend to have more internal peace and better, more secure, long-lasting relationships with others. Kids who have a consumer mindset will tend to focus on gratification, pleasure and self-protection rather than growth. This focus can lead to disappointment and lack of contentment in their relationships.

Notice the differences between the two types of people listed above. Can you see why it’s critical to demonstrate real love to our kids and teach them how to love others by being contributors? In fact, I would venture to guess that you desire the life-long effects for your child and their relationships through a contributor mindset over the effects of a consumer mindset.

How to help your children become contributors

There are six core things that you will need to do to help your children develop a contributor mindset:

  1. Be humble
    Humility is a foundational character trait for all relationships. If you model humility for your kids, chances are, they will behave similarly.  I recommend doing a study on humility and to search for practical ways to practice this posture toward life and relationships. Humility begins through the way we listen and think about others.

  2. Develop empathy
    Learning empathy early in life leads to more significant connections and deeper relationships later in life. It is a valuable skill for your child to learn at an early age. What is it like to be with you? Do you take time to try to genuinely understand your child’s emotional and thought world? A child learns empathy through how you treat and interact with him or her, as well as the rest of God’s creation.

  3. Be a noticer and builder
    Teach your kids to notice their own motives, intentions and their thought bubbles. Read Psalm 139:23-24. Also, help them see the worth and value of other people and ways to build in others through their genuinely encouraging words. Jesus was a noticer of the broken and unloved. I recommend reading through the Gospels with the lens of seeing Jesus as noticer and builder. Let’s be more like Jesus.

  4. See work as a way to love others
    At its best, work is love in action. Use work as an opportunity to teach kids about responsibility, service and perseverance. Kids can learn to see chores as a practical way to love and serve others, and become contributors.

  5. Be patient
    Being patient with your kids and circumstances in general will model this trait for your children. Patience will yield benefits in all areas of your child’s life, including future finances, sexuality and relationships. Patience gives you the ability to see ways to contribute to others. People feel loved when people are patient with them, imperfections and all.

  6. Be courageous
    Courage helps build self-confidence and the ability to stand alone when necessary. Courageous contributors demonstrate real love and do what is right without the approval and affirmation of others. Teach your kids to be courageous in their love through grace and forgiveness toward others. Teach them to show love when it’s hard to give. Do you and your spouse model this courageous and vulnerable love?

Practical ways to grow as a contributor

Let’s look at some practical actions you and your children can do together to grow as contributors. Here are some places to start:

  • Do your children get to practice serving others through chores (invitations to love others)?

  • Are they practicing listening? Thinking about what others are thinking? Feeling for the other person’s benefit?

  • Do you help them learn ways to use life-giving words to build others up?

  • Do they see conversations and relationships as invitations to contribute in loving ways? Or as inconveniences?

  • Are you spending time in God’s Word as you seek each day what God is inviting you to do and who he wants to love through you that day?

A few years ago, my daughter decided to make sticky notes to put on everyone’s locker in her junior high school. She wrote encouraging quotes, words, prayers on each of the more than 300 sticky notes. My daughter came up with this creative idea independently, and I loved watching as she involved some of her friends in this endeavour without needing to be noticed for it. She wanted others in her school to be encouraged and feel loved.

Take time to reflect on some ways to create a genuine contributor mindset in your children rather than well-behaved consumers. What other ideas can you come up with for your children?


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© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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