Hospitality was so serious to my husband and I, it was part of our wedding vows. I commit my heart and my life to welcoming people into our home. Our small apartment in Geneva, Switzerland was home to many gatherings in those first years of newlywed life.
There was no dishwasher in the kitchen, and we had a small, four-burner stove and oven with a broken thermometer. But those things that seemed like limitations did not stop us. We hosted new young adults in our home for lunches of salad and spaghetti, I baked a French toast casserole for prayer brunches, we had our first Thanksgiving in November with new friends.
Our first baby was born a few weeks before our first anniversary, and in the first two years of his life, not much changed in our hospitality routine. But as we added another little one and as our children got older, hospitality with kids got harder. A lot harder.
The work of cooking, picking up a house and working with our now-older-and-less-docile children left us with little time and energy. I had a hard time juggling food and home prep if my kids were also falling apart. We had many awkward moments with guests in our home as our kids fought with each other. It was hard to have a meaningful conversation with anyone while being interrupted by diaper changes and snotty noses and tears. And so much screaming.
We made many mistakes, and sometimes the work of being hospitable to others left us even more frustrated with ourselves. I don’t know why we kept doing it, but we kept going because we learned to respect our limitations along the way. For every playdate gone wrong, we also had a wild and wonderful fall festival where strangers to us and to each other gathered in our yard and drank apple cider and carved pumpkins. We’ve had lunches with neighbors that turned into kite-flying afternoons in the park. We’ve had relaxed times with friends as our kids played beautifully together.
Opening up our home while our kids are young is hard, but it is worth it. The premise of a hospitable life is not based on our convenience and abundance. Hospitality says, this is what we have, we want to give it to you. The work for this season of having little ones is discerning what it is we have to give and the best way in which to give it. These are a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
There are costs my kids can pay and costs they should not pay. Hospitality always comes at a cost, and I want them to know that. But I don’t believe that the cost is them suffering with stressed out parents who are trying to clean and cook and make themselves presentable all while screaming at the kids to get it together before people come over. I don’t want my kids’ memories of having people in their home associated with having to bear the brunt of their mother’s stress as she tries to get things ready. This is a cost I am unwilling for them to pay. I still wrestle with this every single time people are coming over. Often I’ve had to stop myself mid-tirade, to look at my tender kids, sit down, apologize and tell them what’s going on. “Mommy is stressed out because people are coming over, I can see that it is making you sad, too. I’m sorry.” It means I have to work harder to prepare things while they are at school or asleep, it means having to let go of some of my ideals, it means people may come over to a not-clean home. But there are other costs they pay, costs that I am happy for them to pay. They have to share some of their toys with other kids. They have to share our attention with other people. They have to forgo having things the way we would have them if it was just the four of us having a slow weekend.
We take our children’s needs into consideration. For our family this means a limit on huge gatherings with many other children. It is necessary for every family to examine their unique circumstances. Ask yourself, “Who are we? Who are our kids? What works for them and what does not?” We look at timing, the people we are having over, the other children who may be coming, and assess if this is going to work for our kids. We have to know where we need to lovingly push our sons so that the situation – hopefully – leads to growth in their lives, and we need to know where we have to pull back and draw safe boundaries for them by choosing to create something that works in their favor.
We create safe places for our sons in our gatherings. It is crucial that children know that their boundaries and desires are respected when we open our home up to others. I always tell them before anyone comes over that they can come at any time to me and ask for a safe place, often that just means they can stand next to me with my arm around them. In more difficult situations, it may mean I’ll sit with them in their room because they don’t want to be around people anymore. This has rarely happened, but I think it still means something to them that they know it is an option. We ask them before any kids come over if there are toys they don’t want anyone else to play with, and we put those away. If there are children coming over with whom they have struggles or conflicts, we talk about that beforehand and give them options about what they can do if there is a situation of conflict.
Evaluate as you go. Our kids are constantly growing and changing, so what we are able to do with hospitality changes as we go along. You may do things one way for a year or two only to have to change again as your kids get older. It took us several years before we started having people over for dinner before the kids were in bed, but now they can stay up a bit later and an early-evening-barbecue has been a wonderful way to spend time with friends and neighbors.
What are some ways you’ve included your kids as you practice hospitality?