This Year, Say No To Performative Volunteerism And 'Poverty Porn'

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

Last week, I was reading posts in my local social media mom group when I came across a parental quandary that’s all too common this time of year. As the holiday season approaches, parents are noting that they need to teach their kids a lesson. The sentiment is that kids these days are entitled and spoiled, and what they need is to learn to be thankful for what they have.

The responses were classic, but completely unhelpful. One parent suggested the other parent strip their kid’s bedroom of everything but the mattress. Another parent suggested all the local places where the child could forcibly volunteer (ironic, right?) in order to learn how to be grateful for what they have. There are plenty of donation centers, soup kitchens, shelters, and home project organizations that will force the child to be thankful for what they have. Right?

Wrong. I’m here to say no — just no — to performative volunteerism and poverty porn. Instead, let’s teach our children true, year-round gratitude.

I grew up in the eighties, the prime time when parents would push their kids to clean their plates. If a child wasn’t hungry or didn’t care for the Salisbury steak (or in my case, the dreaded meatloaf), mom or dad would say, “There are children who are starving in other countries. Eat your food, and stop complaining.” There’s so much wrong with this—but you get the picture. None of us became more grateful (or hungrier) just because we were told that kids somewhere else were going hungry. We were kids with real feelings who were simply full, or didn’t like what was on our plates.

Today with social media, I’ve seen parents not only force their kids to volunteer—especially on actual holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas—but also take pics and slap them on social media. It’s ironic that we want our children to appreciate what they have, while also prompting our friends and family to look at, and comment on, our volunteerism brag-fest. The whole vibe is: look what we did. Using those who are in need as our tokens is just gross, nor does it teach our children anything.

We’ve established that forcing our kids to be some sort of faux saints isn’t the way to go, but what will help our kids be thankful for the privileges they have? Here are some ideas that may just do the trick.

Establish a good financial system.

My kids get a monthly allowance. Of that, we have them keep 50% for spending, save 40%, and use 10% for charity or church. Many years, they’ve saved their 10% for several months and then used it around the holidays to buy gifts for donation boxes. This is fun for them, since they get to shop for toys and clothes for someone else, and it teaches them an important lesson. By using this money system all year long, they also have opportunities to give their 10% if a situation presents itself. Sometimes a specific organization is collecting money, for example, and they can choose whether or not to donate. We love putting the power in their hands, but also teaching them the expectation is that when they have a privilege, in this case money, they should share it with others.

Choose a cause to support as a family.

When my kids were younger, we quickly realized that they didn’t truly appreciate the stacks of presents they’d receive from us, family members, and friends each birthday. After all, when you receive so many gifts, it’s overwhelming—not to mention unnecessary. We learned of an organization that had a birthday buddy program for children in foster care. For several years, we asked our kids’ birthday party guests to bring a gift for a birthday buddy instead of our child. It was so exciting to see the gifts pile up, and our kids went with us to donate them to the organization center. They established a sense of excitement and (positive) pride for their contribution, knowing that they were helping another child have a very happy birthday. Of course, our kids still got birthday gifts from family and friends—learning that less can sometimes be more.

Join clubs and organizations that take on engaging service projects.

As our kids get older and choose which clubs and organizations to join, consider those that offer volunteer opportunities and service projects. Hopefully many of these clubs and organizations are asking what they can do for others, with the children’s interests in mind. After all, if your child is outdoorsy, they’re going to be more interested in an outdoor cleanup project than forcibly serving mashed potatoes at a shelter once a year. If we position our kids to serve where they interested, they’re more likely to continue that attitude of service throughout their lives. Likewise, if your child is an artist like my oldest, she once helped make holiday-themed placemats for a local organization that delivers meals to the elderly. She absolutely loved using her interest to bring joy to others.

If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying.

Don’t give up just because you tried a financial system or a service project that didn’t go well. If the 50-40-10 allowance system doesn’t work for your crew, find out what does. If your family volunteered with an organization that turned out to be dull and not-organized, there are plenty of others who would love to have you. If your child has joined a club that simply isn’t their vibe, it’s OK to wait out the semester and then switch to something else. Not every idea or opportunity will turn out to be right for your family or your child. By trying again, you’re showing your children to persist in what matters most.

Be a gratitude role model.

I admit, there are seasons I can complain to much, mostly about things that simply don’t really matter. However, if complaining becomes the go-to, this means gratitude is not the norm or default. If our kids don’t see us opening our wallets to help someone in need, they aren’t going to do it either. Taking on an attitude of gratitude is a family affair, and the top-down approach is necessary. It’s cheesy but true: parents are their kids most important teachers. If we aren’t openly and frequently expressing how we are thankful for what we have, if we aren’t thanking those who have helped us in big and small ways, and if we aren’t using our privileges of time and money to help others, we cannot expect our children to do the same.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with serving in a soup kitchen or picking up trash in a local park, but if these are forced upon our kids as a punishment, it will do far more harm than good. I’ve never seen a kid have an ah-ha moment after one short stint of volunteerism, and certainly not a moment that stuck with them through adulthood. Consistency is key. If we want our children to appreciate what they have, we need to make sure they learn this year-round, not just on Thanksgiving day or Christmas morning.

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