Walking down the road one day near our home in Papua, New Guinea, we saw some men carrying a pig tied by its feet to a large stick. My young daughter asked, “What are they going to do with that pig?”

I responded, “It looks like they’re going to have a celebration and eat it.”

“They don’t have anything else to eat, so they have to eat pig!?” she asked. I assured her that having a pig for a feast was a special thing, and that those people would be eating well that night.

She is the same child who, upon hearing that a teenage girl at church was having a birthday, brought a plastic bag full of her toys to me. When I asked what it was for, she said that it was a gift for Pikel—because she did not have any toys. Everything inside of me wanted to exclaim, “But … but that’s your favorite toy from Grandma!” or “Do you realize how expensive it is to ship something here from the States?” I do not think any of those thoughts had even crossed her mind.

After our dog delivered ten puppies, my caring five-year-old told me one day, “It’s a good thing dogs don’t have to hang clothes on the line and other stuff. That would be hard with ten kids!”

As I reflect on these moments with my children, I realize that they seem to have been born with a capacity for caring. However, when I started questioning how it happened, I realized that I had never sat down with them and taught them specific lessons on how to care. From what I can tell, these life lessons were learned largely through exposure and experiences. God has been molding their hearts as they grow through everyday life situations. Caring, it seems, is a skill that flourishes through the very act of caring. They are learning, through life experiences, to begin to consider what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

As parents, there is part of us that wants to shelter, shield, and isolate our kids from hurt. But it is in the real hurt in our world where our kids have the opportunity to develop compassion and the ability to care for others. Exposing them gradually and carefully to the needs of others triggers their innate ability to care. Moreover, it helps them appreciate the comfortable life they may be enjoying, while instilling in them the compassion that is necessary to care for others.

Understandably, not every family has the desire or opportunity to live in a third world country. However, there are opportunities in every community, church, and neighborhood to make space for God to teach our children to care. After moving back to the States, we have tried to allow our kids to be exposed to others’ needs. After all, others need care everywhere.

The following are some experiences I believe have been formative for our kids as they learn to care. Each of these situations has allowed God to help form them into more caring people.

(1) Funerals or memorial services: Celebrating life and mourning death together are places where our kids see hurt. They will not merely witness the hurt, but they will desire to share in sympathetic acts of care.

(2) Hospital visitations: As kids go with adults to visit people in the hospital, they will again be exposed to a hurting world. This can also remind them of the blessings of good health.

(3) Time with elderly people: Time like this helps develop in children compassion and an awareness of those who are often overlooked or lonely in our society.

(4) Time with kids who are younger than them: There is an element of sacrifice in giving up time to do something they would prefer to do with friends their own age. They learn how to help and assist others.

(5) Writing letters of encouragement or thanks: Taking time to notice someone who could use some encouragement or to thank someone helps them think about others regularly.

(6) MAGI Boxes: Filling these special boxes reminds them in a tangible way of the needs of other children beyond the world they see every day.

(7) Service projects: This aids kids in developing a heart of helpfulness and care by giving up time and pouring themselves into something that may ultimately benefit someone else.

(8) Travel: Seeing a world firsthand that differs from theirs gives kids a new appreciation for different kinds of people, the needy, hurting, or lost.

After exposing kids to these kinds of situations and serving with them, it is important to debrief with them about what happened and how they felt. Talking openly with kids about the needs and hurts of others and working together through those situations is what makes all of us aware of others. Being exposed to various situations continuously puts others on our radar. Kids begin to realize that the world is much larger than their own backyard and much grander than the needs they alone have. We need to help our children explore and practice more ‘other thinking’. In this way, we are allowing God the opportunity to mold us into caring people.

Venturing into some of these experiences with children may seem scary and intimidating. Parents might be concerned about their child’s safety or emotional health. On the other hand, sheltering children too much can inhibit the lessons God could be teaching them through difficult experiences. God has given us the ultimate classroom: life experiences. Parents will have to take into consideration their children’s personalities and dispositions and decide what kinds of experiences are most appropriate. But the goal is to allow kids to be in situations where they will see hurt, and their God-given care reflexes will be triggered.

When it comes to caring for others, I feel like my children are often the schoolmasters, while I am the student. Their genuine concern and overwhelming generosity is something I am still trying to learn as an adult. Developing caring hearts requires practice and exposure to the hurting world around us. Are we willing to do what it takes to develop care for others?

By Jeri Ford

This article appears in the August 2016 issue of Think magazine. To subscribe or to learn more, click here.