During the holiday season, parents are out getting lots of great crap for their kids and every once in a while, they pause to think, "But wait, how am I going to keep my kid from turning into a spoiled turd?" That's when someone will pipe up with a, "Take them to volunteer at the homeless shelter." The parent will nod. Perfect solution, ahoy! It'll help your kids appreciate what they have by confronting them with people who are less fortunate, and then there's the added benefit of giving back to the community.
Do not follow this advice. It is terrible advice.
To be clear, giving back to your community is great. So is working at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or any number of places that serve the impoverished. That part isn't gross at all. But doing it once a year? Just to teach your kid a lesson that may or may not sink in? Especially if she doesn't really want to be there? That part is pretty gross.
First of all, you run the risk of turning the entire endeavor into a drudgery, one of those boring obligations that your kid doesn't fully understand but understands that he has to do, like sitting through Easter Mass before he can get sick on creme eggs and Peeps.
Second, it's pretty insensitive, when you think about it. The people who utilize these services are actually people, and you should remember that. It's easy to tell who's there because they really want to help and who's there because they want to use you as a life lesson.
"See kids? See how crappy your life could be if you hadn't won the genetic jackpot? Now play with your iPad and stop complaining about the socks Nana sent you."
Believing in a cause is great, and volunteering for that cause is even better. Selfless. But it is incredibly selfish to turn, "I want to help people who have less than we do" into, "I want to teach my kid a lesson." Once you're at that point, you're just using the people you claim you want to help to make a point.
It sounds kind of cruel when you put it out there like that, but there's an easy way to keep your desire to do good from morphing into a meaningless exercise in jerkitude.
Just do it more often. If it's really important to you that your kids give back, have them do it year round. Have them pick a cause they care about, and give them control. They can walk dogs at the humane society, or sit with seniors or, yes, spend an afternoon a week serving food at a shelter.
The lesson will stick when they aren't being dragged somewhere, and they will become more passionate about a cause when it becomes a regular part of their routine, instead of that once-a-year trip their parents make them do.
Who knows? Next year you might find that your kids are the one dragging you out on the holidays to lend a hand with the community service they've been doing all year.
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