The most important starting place is to understand the difference between
Pity is me up here and you down there. Pity is I'm rich and You're poor.
Pity is condescending. Pity is feeling sorry for you.
Pity makes guilt the motivator.
Compassion is coming alongside. Compassion is We both have needs; how can we help each other?
Compassion is trying to understand. How would I want to be treated if I were in this situation?
Compassion makes love the motivator.
So here are some ideas to help develop compassion in our children. This list is not exhaustive. Feel free to add your own ideas.
1. For one school season, buy all your child's clothes at thrift stores or garage sales. Buying used clothing is the only reality for the majority of the world's population. Experience this reality with your child. Talk about what it feels like. Then allow your child to take the money you saved and pick out a donation from a gift catalog such as Harvest of Hope. (which is a great way to give because it helps a poor family develop sustainable income). That's one of my favorite gift catalogs, but there are many good ones out there.
2. Eat exclusively beans, rice, and vegetables every night for a week. Again--a reality for much of the world. Take the money you save and pick out a donation.
3. Travel on your local bus with your kids every once in a while. Observe. Talk with them about what life would feel like without a car.
4. Read and pray through this fantastic book with your kids. Let's hope the publishers put out a newer version soon! (This is more about missions than poverty, but there is a lot of crossover.)
5. Go to a low-income area in your city. Shop where they shop and/or eat where they eat. Grocery shop there or have lunch. You'll get a new perspective, some new dinner ideas, and probably learn a couple things about different cultures.
6. Go to your church's or city's local food pantry. Take home a couple bags of food (you can always replace them later). Eat that food for a week.
Note: If you are like me, this idea makes you incredibly uncomfortable. You are probably thinking: I could never do that. What if someone I knew saw me? What if anyone saw me? How embarrassing! How humiliating for someone to think I was poor! And anyway, who wants to eat out of cans and boxes all week?
Exactly. What makes us think that a "poor" person feels any differently? Imagine what it would do to your soul if eating from a food pantry was your only option, on a regular basis.
Meditate on those thoughts for a while.
Now....last but not least....my craziest idea...not just for kids, but for whole families:
7. Consider moving into a low-income neighborhood. I wonder, why is this so radical? It's definitely a calling, and it won't be realistic for most families. I understand that, but can we at least pray about it? Many middle-class churches have low-income neighborhoods literally next door. How amazing would it be if a team of church members deliberately moved in--as neighbors, as equals, as friends? To come alongside, to partner together, to share lives, to problem-solve together? Now, that would be a way to teach our kids compassion.
With most of these ideas, you could say, But Amy, these activities are not actually going to help the poor.
No, they are not. But at least they won't hurt the poor, which is what can happen sometimes with our well-meaning attempts to teach our children compassion. And when we have built up compassion and true understanding for the poor in our children, and in ourselves, that's when we are ready to really start making a difference.