In Richard Kirshenbaum’s book about Manhattan’s uber-wealthy, “Isn’t That Rich?,” a father sighs: “I wish I had my son’s childhood, and I wish he had mine.” That’s the challenge for affluent parents who want to give their kids the world, but not destroy their initiative.
The issue comes to a head at Thanksgiving time, when gratitude so often slides off the menu in favor of turkey, football, and gearing up for Black Friday shopping, which sadly begins now on Thursday nights.
So how can parents walk that fine line between instilling proper values in their children, while at the same time not coming across as annoying, preachy or worse? Sentences that begin “when I was your age” are usually the last things your kids want to hear.
Here are three ways to serve up gratitude (the real meaning of Thanksgiving) along with the turkey and trimmings:
First, teach your kids the meaning of “give before you get.”
If your kids expect to get any presents at holiday time in December, they need to start giving now. Some parents like to give their kids a small amount of money – say, $10 or $20 for doing some household chores – and then ask them to pick out a charitable organization that reflects their values.
Then ask your child to donate the money to the organization he or she has selected and write you a note explaining the reasons for selecting that particular charity.
Why is this so important?
There are two kinds of poverty – absolute and relative. Absolute poverty means that you’re part of the “bottom billion,” living on $2 or $3 a day. Relative poverty means that you still have the iPhone 7 when your friends have the 8, or worse still, the X.
The remarkable thing about relative poverty is it can feel even worse than absolute poverty to people living in a materialistic culture. After all, if you’re living in real poverty, chances are, so is everyone else around you. All knowledge is by contrast.
If you and your kids are fortunate enough to be living in a nice neighborhood where people have a lot, sometimes your kids may feel as though they don’t quite measure up materially because other families might have more.
So the idea of identifying places to give puts your kids in touch with the reality that others have less, and often far less.
Second, have your kids pick a cause.
If your kids are unsure about what charity to support, offer them this idea developed by Salt Lake City financial adviser and author Lee Brower: Give them a newspaper – it may be the first time they’ve ever held one – and ask them to find stories they consider disturbing.
The stories might have to do with any issue from poverty to child abuse, from violence against women to whatever else is going on in the world. There is certainly no shortage of troubling issues.
Have your kids each choose one such issue or cause and make it that child’s cause for the current year. Let them raise funds, create awareness, or even – if your kids are especially enterprising – start their own organization to help.
Exercises like these foster a sense of awareness in your kids that the world is bigger than their immediate neighborhood. They’ll realize that life will go on even if they don’t have the particular outfit or basketball shoes their classmates have, and they can experience as much joy from giving as from receiving.
Third, stop shopping for yourself.
In our society, we love “retail therapy” – as in, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. Our kids see all that new stuff walking into the house, all those boxes from Amazon, all the things we buy for ourselves in order to make ourselves feel better (as if our lives were all that bad, which they aren’t).
And yet, life isn’t about the accumulation of riches. In the words of Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, creators of the “Type A” concept of heart disease, when all we think about are possessions, we just become “a more prestigious caretaker.”
So this holiday season, give the credit cards a rest. Demonstrate through your actions that happiness doesn’t require keeping up with the Joneses. Instead, in the words of Quentin Crisp, author of “The Naked Civil Servant,” you should “drag the Joneses down to your level.”
In sum, life is all about flow, giving and receiving.
Kids only get spoiled when they think that the world exists to serve them and meet their needs. They should learn that in reality, true happiness comes from recognizing and meeting the needs of others.
The best way to combat what Warren Buffett calls “affluenza” is to teach our kids that giving is just as satisfying as receiving, and that nothing that arrives from Amazon or any other retailer is as meaningful as knowing that you made a difference in the lives of others.
So this Thanksgiving, sure, pile on the turkey, the stuffing, the cranberries and the pumpkin pie. But teach your kids that there’s nothing more satisfying than gratitude, and they will remain grounded, happy and useful for the rest of their lives.