Offering service: A constant source of happiness

As I was growing up, for me reading was salvation and a way to learn about the world beyond my family and my little town in New Jersey. A voracious reader from as early as I could turn a page, my favored books were about those courageous individuals who triumphed over adversity or who campaigned bravely for human and civil rights. I read and reread the novels and a biography of Louisa May Alcott and was particularly struck by how she nursed wounded soldiers on the battlefield during the Civil War. Although I cannot pinpoint exactly where a passion for compassionate action and human rights began, I think it was in conversations with the women who took care of me after my mother passed away when I was 6. Most of these caretakers were African Americans who, fueled by their desire for a more egalitarian life, had come up from the South to escape Jim Crow.

Inspired by biographies, I wanted to emulate the brave souls who sought to change the world and was driven to find my own experiences. While still in elementary school, I was a member of a Girl Scout troop and volunteered at a local hospital, packaging supplies for the maternity ward. As I grew older, I demonstrated for civil rights and spent hours at the American Friends Service Committee organizing packages for those serving in Vietnam. These experiences set the stage for a fundamental part of my life and, through time, I have found offering service a constant source of happiness. As a parent, one of my goals was to help my daughter become a citizen of the world through volunteering and understanding social and political complexities. Although she never developed my keen interest in current affairs, as an adult she is compassionate and a concerned citizen. When we provide children with opportunities to embrace the world, they will participate and the impact will be long-lasting.

During the early 1970s at the University of California at Santa Barbara Childcare Center, our vision encouraged community building, organic gardening, and political involvement, even in the toddler room. Our staff decried educational programs featuring one mindless coloring project after another. The center’s staff and families often met to cooperatively discuss goals and aspirations, and resulted in active manifestations of the shared values of social commitment and volunteerism. I have had the privilege to watch former center students grow up and have seen the extraordinary and diverse contributions they are making while living happy lives. Several have important positions in government service, others in teaching, entrepreneurial ventures and business. Having been introduced early on to community service beyond the confines of their community has served them well.

What I have observed in many of today’s children is a lack of knowledge and lethargy. Many walk around with hand-held devices and never lift up their heads to see what is immediately around them, let alone, in the greater world. Parents seem likewise self-absorbed. Two recent books receiving considerable publicity have made me wonder about how children will fare from being brought up by the many parents who focus so strongly on self-fulfillment or who commandeer the lives of children. Both types of parents in “Poser: My life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses” by Claire Dederer and the more widely publicized, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by over-involved parent and Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, are from my perspective, neglecting to introduce their children to the importance of serving the community.

Ms. Dederer shares the beginnings of her midlife crisis and with a mood of lackluster energy and what seems a subtle resentment of her toddler-aged daughter. Raised by a mother who married early and then took to the road with a much younger man during the late 1970s (when shuttling between households was uncommon.), Ms. Dederer now wants a more conventional life. She shops at Whole Foods, is a quasi-vegetarian and becomes addicted to yoga. She gives the impression that she is more interested in advancing her asana than in broadening the horizons of her young children, who seem burdensome and very much on the periphery of her life.

Vastly different is Ms. Chua’s approach to parenting. She writes in a style bordering on redundant, and hovers over her gifted children, barely giving them time to breathe. However oppressive her focus, this parent involvement is complete and round-the-clock. What each of these mothers has in common is the insularity of their vision, which, in the long run, does not well-serve children or in any way teaches them to become citizens of the world.

How will the young learn values and behaviors that serve humanity and leave a positive footprint? I often see young children in groups. Even those who have just taken a yoga class, sit or stand around playing with handheld toys and don’t talk or even make eye contact with their peers. When I go over to say hello or engage them in conversation, I am fortunate to get a monosyllabic grunt.

Although the environment is full of activity and vivacity, these children look downward toward their mechanical devices rather then outwards toward the world around them. It is a rare and striking difference to see a family in which the children are encouraged to go beyond themselves, rather than depend on mechanical babysitters to entertain and insulate them from actual interest and engagement in the world and each other.

What are we teaching our children if all we do as adults is engage in naval gazing, or if our children are taught they are nothing unless they please their parents? The opportunities are there for our children to have happy, fulfilling, creatively engaged lives in service to the world. They just need someone to inspire them. As President Barack Obama quoted the famed cellist Yo Yo Ma when awarding him the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can achieve, “ When we become a messenger of peace, we enlarge our view of the world and deepen the meaning of our own lives.”

What better gift can we give to our children?