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Efforts abound to help kids find the 'let me' hidden among the season's 'give me'

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Julia Simens with her son, G.L., on a trip to India. She's always tried to involve him in acts of kindness, random and planned, and believes that being a role model when it comes to caring matters.

Family photo

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — The little boy was largely unnoticed as the scene unfolded in his family's grocery store. The woman had just told the boy's Uncle Peter that she couldn't afford her usual groceries. Her husband had lost his job at the mill.

"Do you still have your vegetable garden?" Peter asked, nonchalantly cutting the cheese and salami for her as he'd done so many times. "Why don't we just continue with your regular list until Paulo gets back to work at the mill, which I am sure he will. And when the garden comes in, you can bring me some of those great beefsteak tomatoes and the pole beans."

The conversation didn't make sense to the boy back in 1954. His uncle had his own great garden. But he watched as they moved around the store, gathering items together, chatting and smiling. Peter helped her load the bags and waved as she left.

When the boy asked afterward, his uncle explained that "many times, people who need help don't want to ask for it because they feel a little ashamed. Sometimes you have to find a way to give to people so that they still feel good about being strong, being a good mother, a good father. I bartered with her so she got the food she needed.

"This is what people do for each other," he said.

Psychotherapist Carleton Kendrick, an expert on parenting teens, tells the story half a century later. He was that little boy. "This is the first time I was informed about this family of humankind, that we are all a family."

Human to humane

The holidays typically bring increased efforts to help kids connect with that feeling of humanity, a sort of antidote to the excesses of what can become a give-me-this-and-that season. Charitable organizations note that they hear often from parents looking for ways to involve their kids in acts of charity during the holidays. For some, it's a seasonal thing. Other parents, like Lori Abbott-Herrick, of Linville, Va., start early and never stop. It's about heart, not holiday.

Her children are now grown, but she and her husband James stressed social conscience to them all throughout their formative years. "I did my college field work with the Hopi Indians in Arizona and they taught me about viewing the world as a collective and the individual as part of that whole," she said. "No one person is more important than the group. So my kids had to do chores because it benefited the family. I took them to stay with the last surviving Shaker community (in Maine) so they could see collective identity firsthand. We didn't have Thanksgiving at home for years because we worked and ate in the local homeless shelter."

Call it charity, philanthropy, generosity or just human decency. It's an important aspect of raising good world citizens, experts note. Add an "e" to human and you have humane, pointed out Kendrick, author of "Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's." It's also a step to future happiness.

"You can't expect your children to grow up and have healthy relationships with a wife, friend, husband (or) colleagues if all they're expecting is what's in it for themselves," said Christina Steinorth, author of "Cue Cards for Life: Gentle Reminders for Better Relationships" and a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif. "We really do our children a disservice if we don't teach them to think about other people. For humanity as a whole, that's the wrong direction to be going in. And usually there's a time in someone's life when they need to be taken care of. Self-entitled people don't have that many people around them.

"Is it ever too late? It's easier if you do it sooner," Steinorth said.

Getting started

The holidays certainly are not the only time there is need, Steinorth noted. But it's a fairly simple time to kick-start an effort. Find something meaningful to do for someone else, then add a New Year's resolution, then "keep working to make the world a better place."

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