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Hudson Valley Press

November 16th, 2011

Teaching kids the true meaning of Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving, many Americans are preoccupied with turkeys, parades, football games, and even Black Friday sales. It seems that over time, this holiday has become more about getting things - whether that’s food, entertainment, or bargains - than about giving thanks for what we already have. If you’re like most parents, you don’t want your kids to grow up focused solely on themselves, concerned only with the latest video game or with how they can get their way. You want them to feel genuine gratitude for the blessings they have and to demonstrate thought and concern for others.

According to Todd Patkin, there’s no better time than the Thanksgiving holiday to help your kids become less me-focused and more thoughtful.

"In general, I don’t believe that kids act selfishly because they genuinely don’t care about others - it’s more that they aren’t really sure how to help others and give back, because they aren’t being taught," asserts Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and - Finally - Let the Sunshine In. "It’s crucial for adults - especially those of us who are parents - to start early when it comes to raising our kids with a passion for philanthropy, and Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity."

Patkin speaks from experience - giving back to others has become an integral part of his life. Many of the organizations with which he’s involved reach out to young people, and he says he’s amazed by how readily these children and teenagers embrace the principles behind selfless service.

"I’m convinced that the ‘me’ generation isn’t as egocentric at heart as it’s made out to be," he confirms. "However, kids do need to be guided in a positive direction."

Ready to help your child take the first steps from selfishness to selflessness? Then read on for ways that parents can get their children geared up for giving back:

• Explain philanthropy to your kids. Before you and your kids get into the proverbial trenches, it’s important to first help them realize that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money, and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. It’s important, especially when kids are young, to start with the very basics of why it’s important to give.

"Kids will usually do what you say they should while they’re under your roof, but they won’t continue to pursue philanthropy throughout their lives unless they understand the ‘why’ behind it," Patkin confirms. "Explain the charity work you do to your child. Tell her why you do it and who it helps."

• It’s never too early to start - don’t wait until your kids are "old enough." Empathy is a concept that children can learn from a very early age, so look for and take advantage of teachable moments. You can start with something as basic as encouraging small children to share with one another. Ask them to consider how they’d feel if they didn’t have a toy, and how their feelings would change if a friend gave them one, for example.

• Make it a part of everyday life. As most parents know, you’ll probably never have as much time or money as you’d like, so waiting for "just a little more" of either is futile. When it comes to giving back, there is no better time to start than now, using what you already have.

"When many people think of philanthropy, they picture big-money donations and orphanages founded in third-world countries - and those things certainly qualify," Patkin acknowledges. "However, the everyday efforts of ‘ordinary’ people can also have an incredible impact. Just remember that since parents need to model good behaviors, you’ll need to walk the talk that you’re giving to your kids. The next time you’re grocery shopping with your children, for example, buy some extra canned goods and drop them off at a food bank on the way home in preparation for the Thanksgiving rush."

• Get kids involved in the process. The more you let your children become involved in the philanthropy process, the more they’ll be invested in what you’re doing. Bring your kids in from the beginning by allowing them to help choose which organizations the family volunteers for or donates to. They’ll feel more connected to the cause, and even the youngest members can be involved, even if it just means tagging along.

"It’s a good idea to sit down with your kids and ask them to identify a problem that they want to fix," suggests Patkin. "If they’re very young, you might give them a few options to choose from, such as feeding people who are hungry or getting winter coats for people who don’t have them. Then you can all work on finding a corresponding organization. You might also think about volunteering to organize a charity project for your child’s classroom in order to kick off a ‘giving gang’ - a group of peers doing charity work together."

• Reinforce the value of a random act of kindness. Giving back is not always about a charity organization, a monetary donation, or volunteering - in other words, things you schedule. Kids need to understand that having a heart for others, at its core, is a way of life, not a series of appointments on your calendar.

"Guide your kids by pointing out opportunities for them to take the initiative in engaging in random acts of kindness," instructs Patkin. "When you’re out shopping, encourage them to help an elderly lady load her groceries into her car, and then offer to return her cart to the corral. Likewise, prompt your child to hold the door for a woman pushing a baby stroller, or whisper that he might offer the last piece of pizza to his younger brother."

• Make it a family affair. When you give back as a family, your kids will see Mom and Dad as role models. Bonus: You’ll all grow closer to each other because of this shared experience.

"As with any change, start small and take baby steps," encourages Patkin. "While you may not be ready to give up your family vacation for a volunteer trip, you can eat in one night and use the money you saved on eating out to help feed the homeless. After projects or events, always be sure to have a family meeting where you sit down with your kids to talk about what you’ve done, how it made them feel, and how it helped others. Helping your kids to acknowledge the accomplishment and the good feelings associated with philanthropy will encourage them to continue their involvement. Again, I encourage you to kick off this initiative during the Thanksgiving holiday. There are plenty of organizations that would welcome a family’s worth of helping hands."

• Help your kids to focus on how good it feels to give back. Everyone likes to feel good, and kids are certainly no exception. When they feel good about something, they - like you - will want to do it again. In fact, that good feeling will be the impetus that keeps your kids motivated to continue helping others.

"Zero in on the warm fuzzies by talking about the excitement your kids are feeling on the way to donate that box of toys, or how happy they were when they were thanked for serving food at the local soup kitchen," Patkin suggests. "Even more importantly, talk about those experiences fairly often to remind your children of how wonderful they were. Helping kids to acknowledge their philanthropic accomplishments and the good feelings associated with them will really encourage them to get hooked on helping!"

"Ultimately, raising children who understand the value of giving back - and whose lives reflect that knowledge - is one of the most philanthropically minded things parents can do, and this holiday provides the perfect opportunity," Patkin concludes. "Don’t forget that Thanksgiving isn’t just about ‘thanking’ - it’s about giving as well. After all, the original celebrants gave their food and friendship to one another, and helping others is an American legacy I’d like to see continue. And from a parental point of view, you’ll be amazed at how rewarding it is to raise philanthropists, and how much stronger giving back makes your relationship with your kids."

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