When Ken and I were first married, we invited a little boy named Sammy to go with us to the zoo. We thought it would be fun. He would make faces at the monkeys and roar at the lions. We’d buy him ice cream and take pictures of him feeding the goats. It would be great.

Turns out we were more excited about the zoo than Sammy was. With slumped shoulders, he dragged his feet slowly along, barely glancing up at the animals. I had to make faces at the monkeys by myself. And roaring at the lions was out of the question; Sammy was too bored with them to roar. He did perk up at the idea of ice cream, but when they didn’t have the kind he wanted, he pouted and said he didn’t want any.

Ken and I wondered if Sammy’s parents had twisted his arm
and snarled, “You will go to the zoo and you will like it.”

After we dropped him off, Ken and I sat in the car, puzzled. It had been such a good idea! What went wrong? We just assumed all little kids liked the zoo. We figured he would have a great time, and we’d get to enjoy his delight as a byproduct. But instead, he was bored and we were disappointed.

I’m convinced that Ken and I had the right idea. Taking Sammy to the zoo did hold more potential for fun than indulging ourselves in a movie or a lazy afternoon at home. But I’m also convinced that Sammy didn’t understand the principal of joy.

He thought happiness was manufactured by getting what you want and having it your way (which obviously, for him, didn’t involve the zoo). He didn’t realize that he actually would have enjoyed the zoo, had he simply done one thing: focused on others, instead of himself. Even an eight-year-old can say to himself, “These people are trying to do something nice for me, and I want to please them by having a good time.”

The child who learns to adopt this mind frame is the child who does have the most fun at the zoo. And, as a byproduct, he increases the joy of others, as well.

Now that Ken and I have our own eye-rolling, slumped shouldered kids, we know how difficult it is to help kids appreciate and enjoy what they are given–especially in overabundant America. We also know we can’t force our kids be ‘delightful’ to others any more than Sammy’s parents could make him ‘go to the zoo and like it.’

But here’s what we can do. We can train our kids that the way to squeeze the most out of life is to focus on others–even the people who are trying to serve and entertain them. And as a byproduct, they’ll be a delight to others, whether they’re at the zoo, at school, or in the back yard.

True joy comes, not from focusing on ourselves, but on others. We get more joy when we give it! God set it up that way. And it’s true for kids of all ages.

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