What is hospitality? Is it a gift, a virtue, a choice? How about a command? Biblical hospitality is one of the cornerstones of our faith and one of the actions that sets apart the “sheep” from the “goats.”
Something so important as this is something that we want to pass on to our children. But can we really expect a three-year-old to practice hospitality? Yes! If we teach them how.
1) Hone your own hospitality graces.
The truth of the matter is that parenting is all about example. If you grumble after the guests leave about how much they ate, or the mess that was made, how do you expect your child to be excited about sharing toys with the other children? Children are experts at noticing the frazzled, frustrated truth that is covered by the false smile as soon as you open the door. They will know if serving others is a joy that commemorates your Messiah bending to wash His disciples feet, or a burden that is only endured.
If you feel that you need your own primer in hospitality, start by thinking of the people you know that have that unique gift of making everyone around them feel comfortable and loved. What do they do that you can emulate? Pray for a loving heart that sees others as the Creator sees them. And start practicing even with your own family – they will certainly appreciate it!
2) Teach and talk.
Paul in Romans 10:14 asks the question how can people make a choice to believe without first hearing about it? The same is true for children. How can they make the choice to be hospitable (or do anything really) without it being explained to them? Outside of showing them the way, taking time to talk to them often is the next most important thing.
In movies, books, and on television, point out to them instances when good hospitality (or a lack thereof) is being displayed. Look for it in unexpected places. For example, in a story about Harriet Tubman, you can point out how the people on the underground railroad were showing hospitality.
Also look for times to discuss this important topic in your daily life. After going to someone else’s home, talk about how the host was hospitable. At church, you can talk about welcoming guests there, and the things your church does to help make them feel welcome. Don’t be afraid to use the word “hospitality” and provide a brief definition.
3) Practice and pretend.
Play time is learning time for toddlers. Take time out to have a little tea party with their bears and dolls. Or play “visiting” and go over to their “house” or have them over to yours. Eat pretend meals in blanket forts, and thank them profusely for their kindness.
Also, role-play upcoming events. Go to the door together and practice saying “welcome,” “come in” and “thank you so much for coming.” If there is a specific visit planned, mark it on the calendar and count down. Tell them what to expect and what is expected of them. “The Joneses will be coming over for dinner. They have two boys about your age. What toys would you like to share with them? Should we make meatloaf or spaghetti?”
Giving them choices helps children feel a sense of ownership over the event and be able to share in the planning. Ask them what they can do to be hospitable. This will help them think through the decision making process that will occur when the actual guests arrive. As adults we already do this whether we realize it or not. Most of us struggle when put into sudden and unexpected situations. However, we often put our children in this uncomfortable position regularly without even realizing it. Involve your children in your train of thought as you plan, and they will learn much more than they would in the corrections after the fact when they fail to live up to your unspoken expectations.
4) Involve them in the fun.
After all this playtime, they will be disappointed if you do not involve them in the real fun of having guests. No matter how small they are, if they can walk and carry something they can help in some way. Have them ask guests if they need a drink, carry (plastic) cups of water, or offer cookies from the tray. Just be mindful that they are still learning. They may spill, they may get halfway through and become shy, or forget all together exactly what they are doing. These are opportunities to teach them – not only how to do it better, but how to be loving and generous when others make mistakes. Rather than “Ugghh!! Why don’t you be more careful?” try “Thank you so much for trying to help. Here is a towel to dry it up, let me show you how.”
Teaching hospitality to our children should be as basic as teaching kindness or honesty. Unfortunately, in our individualistic society, basic social graces have tended to go the way of the dinosaurs. We will all benefit from reviving the simple yet important act of making others feel welcomed and cared for in our presence. Remember that scriptural hospitality extends not only to those in our immediate circle, but also to the “least of these” that the Son of God came to minister to and save.