Abundant Family Life in a Struggling Country: Lessons from El Salvador

We were hustling across the parking lot into the grocery store when Sam commented that he was nominating me for mom of the year. He thought it was rather noble I was taking 4 kids to the grocery store by myself. A child tainted by the perspective of our American society: children are an extra duty, a cumbersome task to be handled well only when we have the spare time. A trap I fall into myself all too frequently.

I told him I was glad to have all of the help, and asked them each to get a cart. We paraded through the grocery store caravan style, each child helping to find items, responsible for placing them in their carts, unloading them at the checkout and returning the carts. My only responsibility was tracking the list and conducting the orchestra of our ragtag parade. We had a blast, got the work done, and headed home happier than we left.

I have the people of a struggling country to thank for this rich experience. My work with Habitat for Humanity has taken me to El Salvador frequently over the past 12 years. Never before one to travel back to the same place over and over again, it turns out there are lessons of depth to be learned: the country has more for me to learn and absorb than I will have time for in a lifetime. When we travel, the things we learn are indelibly tied to where we are personally, and so it has been for the life-changing lessons from El Salvador: I've learned how to be generous when you don't even have enough money to feed your family, how to be joyful where you are, and how to cultivate hope in the midst of a country constantly stricken with natural disaster and warfare. Grandiose concepts worth attempting, but it was an unexpected lesson which has impacted our family more deeply than the others: shared work builds belonging.

 She makes this trip look easy.  Carrying water 

She makes this trip look easy.  Carrying water 

When my children were toddler and nearly school aged, I took a group of 10 to volunteer for a week. As always, our week included grueling hours in the sun mixing mortar. This trip we were working in a small village of 3 generations of the same family living on the mountainside. We ate lunch in the shelter of grandma's front porch, and entertained the various children who raced the paths up and down the mountain with Uno games and pick up sticks. Every morning when we arrived, the children were coming up the mountain with jugs of water on their heads, fresh from the well at the bottom. Two trips a piece to get the morning meal started, as well as a bit of wash to be hung in the sun. Mind you, this was a trip we full-grown folks attempted as well-- and one jug was nearly impossible for me to get to the top, and these were 2 of the six trips each day these children would make to support the family. By the time we left each evening, we would find families sitting picking beans together and talking, or grinding corn while others patted tortillas into perfection. Family time, sharing work.

 Three generations under one roof.  Photo by Ann Schertz

Three generations under one roof.  Photo by Ann Schertz

I don't glamorize this life, but here's the thing: in our world of screens and disconnection, these families who have so little in material possession have a rich life. They have built family systems of belonging, where everyone is needed to make life livable. In Salvador, as in many other developing countries, children's participation in the household chores is part of life, rather than a special exception made when the parent has time to properly supervise the inevitable messiness of a child helping in the kitchen. Conversation and life lessons happen throughout the day as children sit at their parent's feet and shuck corn, or lay coffee to dry in the sun. They are included in these chores from the time they can walk, and they have a sense of true belonging in the work of living.

 Teamwork at checkout

Teamwork at checkout

I returned home determined to shift my mindset from working for my children to working with them. I wanted them to know the one thing that every human needs to know was true for them: they were needed-- they belonged.

My children will complain from time to time about how hard they have to work-- putting dishes in the dishwasher, vacuuming, helping with meal prep, and now with laundry. It truly helps me, but I hope that I will stop to remember from time to time why we started all of this: chores are not a necessary evil separating us from family time, they can be a path to conversation which bubbles up in new ways when we work next to one another.

It is certainly more work to include children as they learn how to help, but the rewards are deep. As we move through the holidays, consider engaging your children in the work of life. I'm going to do more of the same.  It is a gift which truly keeps giving. You can blame me later.