6 ways to teach young children about the reality of suffering around the world

Nov 7, 2016

My oldest son just turned five, and this age is a joy. He understands the world in new ways every day and is asking tough, thoughtful questions. As a parent, I sense my goals are changing. My days with him are no longer defined by gaining ounces, learning words or “going” in the potty. (Can I get an amen?!) But I feel like my back is leaning on a door with the weight of the world behind it.

My husband and I have served in ministry for over a decade now. In God’s providence, my children have never known hunger and have hardly faced pain or loss. Yet, Judson is beginning to understand what it means when Daddy preaches a funeral, when we buy groceries for other families or send money to feed the hungry on the other side of the world.

If I’m honest, the temptation I have in parenting is the same one I have in the rest of my life: to avoid suffering at all costs. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The art of life is the avoidance of pain.” It’s easy to think Judson is not ready to have these difficult discussions. Yet, as Christians we know that we should glory in tribulations. (Rom 5:3-4) Jesus even promises trials. (John 16:33)

In age-appropriate ways, my husband and I are seeking to lay a foundation for our children that includes the reality of hardship and suffering. We pray they will see God in those times and learn to trust him through them. Here are a few suggestions of some discussions that we are having in our home.

  1. The world is big, and God loves it all. (John 3:16) In any way you can, think globally. Talk about where your coffee came from. Get a book from the library about another country. Pray for the family who is adopting internationally. In an ever-increasing scope, open your child’s eyes wide to this amazing world God has created.
  2. The world is full of people who have needs and face difficulties. One of the upsides of the time in which we are parenting is that we have no excuse for not knowing about global realities—even when we spend many hours sheltered in our homes. Pray for the victims of the most recent disaster. Thank God for the “good guys” who protect us here and abroad. Introduce the idea that hard things have purpose (Rom 8:28), and God is still in control in difficult circumstances (Mark 4:39-40).
  3. God has placed us here and now for a reason. God has an amazing plan for our lives and that centers on proclaiming and showing God’s love to others (Matt 5:16, 2 Cor 1:3-4). No matter where you live, poverty is just around the corner. Our church is involved in a backpack ministry at a local school that sends home healthy snacks for children at risk of hunger. My child is now old enough to help pack those bags and think about his peers who need help. Seek to understand the needs of your community, and introduce them to your children as an opportunity to show God’s love.
  4. God has given us everything we have. I’m sure every parent of preschoolers is working on this one. We should be a thankful people and happy with the things we have (Phil 4:12). Talk about God’s grace. Talk about stewardship. Ask their little minds, “How can we use our money to love others?” We give to Global Hunger Relief to support the hunger projects of IMB missionaries and NAMB ministries around the world. Together, we’ve watched the videos about where our money goes and talked about the babies who don’t have mommies and how we give to help get them the milk they need. Those moments are precious to me.
  5. God has given the church as a gift to us and to others. Expanding the concept of the church from a building to a body can difficult for the literal mind of a five-year-old. But it starts with knowing and spending time with the people of the church. My husband and I seek to be intentional about having people in our home. I know this can be hard to do when you feel like you live with feral animals instead of small humans (my hand is raised!). I’m always encouraged by thinking about how loved and welcomed I have felt as the guest of others. Opening your home opens your children’s lives in controlled ways and can be a lot of fun along the way.
  6. Everyone needs to hear the good news of Jesus. (Matthew 28:16-20) Talk about the saving grace of Jesus Christ here and abroad. If you have the opportunity to go to another country, go! If you can’t, think about creative ways your family can support those who are going. Take your kids next door to your very own neighbors who need the gospel and seek to meet their needs. Connecting the ideas of physical needs to spiritual needs cannot be missed. Jesus has called us to serve them both (Matt 10:42).

As I introduce the idea of the suffering of others to my children, I know that some day these truths will become personal. Tim Keller wrote, “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career—something will inevitably ruin it.” I want to begin to prepare them for that day now.

Seeing and trusting God’s purpose through difficulty is one of the greatest joys and freedoms of the Christian life. I pray for the day that my children know and embrace this truth in their own hearts.