Have you ever played rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to go last—or to see who gets to sit in the backseat? 

My college roommate would yell, “Backseat!” every time the two of us rode with another diver. He also had the unique custom of tipping the ice cream server for his milkshake at Baskin Robbins. He explained, “Think about it…you tip the bartender, and all they do is knock the top off of a bottle. The person making your milkshake spends so much more time with your order.” He was a strong, yet empathetic leader in college and continues to be one now. I think that growing up in a household of four kids taught him that life was about much more than him—and these lessons have had a great deal to do with his success.

Leading Experts Agree 

Today, child psychologists agree that, if you want your child to thrive throughout life, start teaching them now that the world does not revolve around them. Instead, teach them to serve others—that will teach them how to find purpose in life. 

William Damon, a psychologist and professor at the Stanford School of Education, explained it this way: “People don’t worry about the right things. The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.” By teaching your children to serve others, you can give them an opportunity to enrich their lives. 

Training your children to serve others isn’t an alternative to raising them to be successful. In fact, according to Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Teaching children to care about others might be the best way to prepare them for a successful and fulfilling life.” They go on to explain this further: 

Quite a bit of evidence suggests that children who help others end up achieving more than those who don’t. Boys who are rated as helpful by their kindergarten teacher earn more money 30 years later. Middle-school students who help, cooperate, and share with their peers also excel—compared with unhelpful classmates, they get better grades and standardized-test scores. The eighth graders with the greatest academic achievement, moreover, are not the ones who got the best marks five years earlier; they’re the ones who were rated most helpful by their third-grade classmates and teachers. And middle schoolers who believe their parents value being helpful, respectful, and kind over excelling academically, attending a good college, and having a successful career perform better in school and are less likely to break rules. 

Jesus—the Ultimate Servant Leader—Taught the Last Will Be First 

Jesus made his priorities clear to two of his closest friends after they insisted he do whatever they ask. Jesus responded by saying, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45 NIV).

The King of Glory came to earth as a suffering servant, laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13), and still his closest followers asked for special privileges. That seems obnoxious, selfish, and even crazy, yet we tend to do the same thing for ourselves and for our children.  

The Apostle Paul’s faith in Jesus was strong, and he tried to become more and more a servant leader like Jesus. God inspired Paul to encourage others this way in his letter to the Philippians: 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

So, how can we train our kids to be this way? Here’s one place to begin: help them see and respond to the needs around them. 

In Luke 10:30-35, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. He began by describing a man traveling a dangerous road between two cities. On the way, the traveler was attacked by robbers, who stole his clothes, beat him, and left him lying half-dead on the road. 

A priest happened to be traveling on the same road. You’d expect the priest to stop and help—but he stepped around the crumpled man and kept going. A little later, a Levite, an assistant to the priests, came down the road. He, too, avoided the man and kept going. 

And then a Samaritan walked down the road. Samaritans and Jews had been enemies for centuries, but here’s how Jesus described what the Samaritan did next:

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

The Samaritan saw the man with compassion, went over to him, and took care of the man’s needs. What made the difference? How do we teach our children to respond more like the Good Samaritan than like the priest or the Levite? It’s more than just religious training, since the priest and the Levite had plenty of that. Here’s how Martin Luther King Jr. described the difference: 

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop and help this man, what will happen to me?” But … the Good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

What happens if we don’t help our neighbor? And how can we step in to keep that from happening?

It is possible to train our kids to think this way. Try questions like these at dinner or after family devotions:

  • Who knows someone who is hurting or needs something? How can you help them? 
  • What can you do at school to help others?
  • What can you do at home to help your siblings or parents? 
  • Is there a neighbor who needs our/your help?
  • Who was able to help another person today? How did it go?

And don’t forget to teach them to play rock-paper-scissors for the backseat!

This is the first post in our short series on helping our kids outgrow “me first” thinking. For more about how to help your kids serve others, check out this post from Josh Pezold.

Howard Graham is the Executive Editor of Strategic Dads. He also serves as the Chaplain for Presbyterian Day School and the Executive Director of Building Boys, Making Men. Howard is passionate about teaching people to know God and to help them live out their faith in Jesus. He enjoys spending time with his family. He and his wife, Kimberley, have a girl and three boys. They live in Memphis, TN.