Many (many, many) years ago, a bunch of the teenagers (yours truly included) at my church set out to plan a holiday activity. Somehow, without our conscious knowledge, the adult leaders steered us all into the path of an oncoming service project. By the time we realized what had happened, it was too late.

Thanksgiving was fast approaching. A family that someone (probably one of those devious leaders) knew could not possibly afford to have any kind of celebratory dinner. Our mission was to provide them, anonymously, with the feast of their lives.

We began the project, I'm afraid, a bit reluctantly, but soon the momentum carried us on. Planning the best possible holiday menu, discussing fundraising options, comparing prices. Most of the details I no longer recall.

But one thing is, over 20 years later, still vivid in my mind: Nearly 15 giggling teenage girls, trying desperately to place bags of groceries, freshly baked pies, a bouquet of flowers, and one gigantic turkey on a tiny porch without being detected, ringing the doorbell, running frantically to hide in the bushes down a side hill, and waiting.

After what seemed like an eternity of stifling our giddy, breathless laughter, we heard the front door creak open and then a squeal from a young child's throat.

“Mommy! Maaaaaaaaawmeeeeeeeeeee!”

Within seconds there were other young, excited voices. Then, finally, we recognized the voices of the mother and father. Ooos and ahhs and true rejoicing flooded across the lawn and over the embankment to our hiding place.

When the family had finally gathered up their treasures and closed the door, it was quite a different scene. We were dumbstruck. We were amazed. We were warm from head to toe. We had no idea that we could really and truly effect people's lives for the better ?so easily!

We learned an unforgettable lesson of service that day. And it wouldn't have happened without a bit of prodding from our wise leaders.

After writing about the connection between service and self-esteem in an article titled Puppy Dog Self-Esteem I received one comment repeatedly from readers. “Great! But how do you get kids to serve?” Here are some ideas that I hope will be the springboard for much brainstorming:

Set the Mood

Make your life an example of loving service. Look for opportunities to help those in need. The current trend toward “random acts of kindness” is fine and dandy, and can be fun, but don't let those superficial niceties take the place of true, lasting friendship and fellowship. The latter is more difficult and takes more commitment, but also tends to provide greater benefits and rewards.

Service Begins at Home

Treating our own family members with kindness, respect, and love sometimes seems much more difficult than extending to a stranger. But loving family relationships, and selfless service to each other, are crucial to build an attitude of love for all our fellowman.

A friend of mine with five small children gave me an idea a few years ago that has been a big hit in our family. Each week, during our “family night,” we have a short awards segment. Each child, in turn, stands up in front of the family (usually using my aerobics stepper as a platform). Every other member of the family tells of something amazing this child did during the week and we all clap and cheer. The more specific you can be the better. I try to recognize instances of kindness and service, especially when they are done willingly and on the child's own initiative.

The benefit of this is not only in motivating the child “in the spotlight” to continue good works, but also to have each of us looking for the good qualities in others. When we begin to see all the possible ways to serve one another, it is contagious and the best form of copy-catting!

Secret Service

More than once the society page, filled with wealthy people posing in ball gowns for the next charity benefit dinner, has made me cringe. “Why,” I have often wondered, “don't they just sell the gown and the tux and give that money to charity?” Call me a cynic. But while we do praise and encourage the efforts our children make, we want them to learn that the true joy of service is in bringing relief and joy to others, not in public recognition. One thing that has helped us do this has been to choose “secret service” recipients. Each of us draws names of another family member for whom we will do one anonymous act of service for each day.

These acts naturally extend to neighbors. Children in the habit of looking for ways to serve will often see these opportunities everywhere they go.

Ancestors in Action

Look to your extended family as well for inspiration. Dig up stories of service your ancestors have given. Record them and tell them often. Let these people, your ancestors, be the heroes and heroines your children look up to and emulate.

Start Young and Make it Fun

When our oldest was only two, the Family Night Phantom moved into our home. One Monday evening we made some cookies and put them in a basket with a note that read as follows:

Happy Family Night!

Here is a little something just for you. If you care to continue the tradition, please pass this basket on next Monday night with your own surprise and the same message.

Much love from: The Family Night Phantom

Our daughters have had great fun creating and delivering the surprise. They get a small taste of the joy of service with no coaxing at all. And there's a bonus: almost every single time we start this, we end up getting the basket back ourselves a few week later!

A New Attitude

As kids get older, giving service can become a normal part of their lives. Help them make a habit of it. Encourage them to set goals of service as well as in other areas. Volunteer opportunities abound in hospitals, churches, nursing homes, community groups, non-profit organizations, even businesses and political organizations. Help, encourage, and support their efforts to become involved and give of their time and talents.

Service to others has many incidental benefits as well. Undoubtedly your children will learn new skills and discover strengths and interests they didn't know they had. But a lifelong attitude of love and service can also bring joy, peace, and a real sense of high self-esteem. And it makes the world a better place to boot.