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.
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."
Steinorth knows a family that sits down on New Year's Eve and creates a "calendar of giving" for the coming year. They are so much happier, they tell her, since they started to do that. Their secret is making it a habit.
Efforts to teach kids to think outside themselves should be consistent, said Steinorth.
But they don't have to be flashy, added Julia Simens, a psychologist from Incline Village, Nev., who wrote "Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child." "For me, it starts with the smallest things, like helping someone in the grocery store. It says that as a family we help other people — not just when we are in a good mood or when we can write a big check. It is part of the makeup of who we are."
When her son, G.L., was 17, they helped families affected by a flood. He didn't really want to go that day. She didn't fight him on it — she just told him she was going and he was welcome to join her.
"He very much enjoyed it," she said, noting that they handed care packages to people who couldn't get to stores and restock their supplies. They weren't in danger, but it helped them. And G.L. went "above and beyond what I initially thought he would do."
It's easiest, she said, when you start with kids young. Then it more readily becomes a way of life. Simens grew up that way, on a Kansas farm. Farmers never had money to give, she remembered, but they took care of each other.
"We have a problem with people not being happy in America," said author Todd Patkin, who wrote "Finding Happiness." "We've confused success with happiness and the focus is on achieve, achieve, achieve. Later, we realize it's more about having good friends and being there for others."
He knows from personal experience that it's human nature to become a lot happier when you start doing things for others, he said.
Jennifer Little, a teacher with degrees in special education and educational psychology in Portland, Ore., has spent a career working largely with low-income children and their families. She thinks schools have adopted community service policies because so many people no longer volunteer to serve in their community.
She believes people who have been in need are more likely to try to solve others' needs and said research backs it up. "I have seen this over and over in the classroom and outside it with friends living in poverty. They would give, even when it hurts them to give."
Kids don't act selfishly because they don't care. Often, they aren't taught how to give back, noted Patkin, who suggests that parents work early on instilling a passion for others in their children. And, like others who spoke to the Deseret News, he said it begins not with words, but with parents modeling the behavior in the way they live.
"I'm convinced that the 'me' generation isn't as egocentric at heart as it's made out to be," he said. "However, kids do need to be guided in a positive direction. ... Parents are the great influencers when it comes to developing their kids' habits and behaviors — including cultivating a desire to give and to help others. If they see you giving back as a part of your regular life, they'll learn that and carry it with them into adulthood."
Experts say it's a mistake to let kids think that philanthropy means money, although that's part of it. Nor, noted Patkin, is generosity "limited to giving away things you no longer want." Kids need to know why it matters whether you give. That's what leads people to adopt philanthropy as a normal part of life. Kids also need to learn that it's not "one-size-fits-all."
Kendrick asked a nurse friend who long worked with hospice and those at the end of their lives what she'd learned. "I've learned the best thing I can give — and I've done all kinds of nursing — is just to abide with people," she told him.
His own kids, now grown, often went with his wife to deliver Meals on Wheels. He took them regularly to the food bank where he volunteered. "Gratitude and giving. I find them inseparable," he said, adding humans are "happiest when giving."
Patkin suggests committing to working two days a month as a family with a charity or doing something to help others, such as elderly neighbors or working a church yard sale.
Writing a check helps people, but children don't understand it the same way they do handing someone food at a pantry and knowing it will allow them to care for their babies, said Kendrick.
"For me, it boils down to the good of society," said Simens. "If we have a bunch of 'gimme, gimme' kids, we're going to end up with a society that is more dysfunctional than it is already."
As for the season, it's hands-on, she said. "We want kids to be involved in the local community," delivering food, not just buying it. "It ties into Christmas and Thanksgiving and it is such a joyful thing to be able to give to someone else. Sometimes the impact is powerful."
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