Ask A Therapist: How Do I Get My Kids To Appreciate What They Have?
I’m in the middle of completing an adult paint-by-number kit. It’s self-care. It helps me relax, helps me be mindful, helps me breathe in the midst of our busy holiday schedule.
As I paint each color, each tiny shape, I pay close attention to the lines, the edges, the strange angles and the way my paintbrush moves alongside them.
I blur edges and go past the boundaries - because I’m not very good at painting, really, but I do what I can.
While I’m in the midst of painting, I don’t often sit back and look at the picture as a whole, because it’s not that kind of project. It requires attention to the details until it’s finally complete.
But along the way, as I take breaks, I can see the progress. I can see where the numbers are taking me, and can begin to imagine what the full picture will look like.
Parenting is similar.
Along the way, we have day-to-day struggles with the little things - the things that feel big in the moment, but when you step back, they are just a tiny piece of the whole picture. One that is barely even noticed in the scheme of things.
But every little part has it’s role, doesn’t it? Every little piece fits together in just a certain way in order to make the picture of beauty that you were going for at the start.
My paint-by-number progress.
This time of year, I often hear about a part of that picture. Because this time of year we are doing so much - spending our time and money planning for our kids to wake up to a magical Christmas morning - the time where we spend an entire month moving an elf from one side of the room to another and wake up in cold sweats when we forget - the time of year that we get together with our family members that judge us based on that one interaction we have with them all year…
This time of year when we are focused on gratitude and giving, we tend to notice when our kid’s attitudes aren’t exactly reflective of all of the lessons that go with the holiday.
As parents, most of what I hear is that we want to provide a life that was “better” than what we had growing up.
So we are giving our kids more things, more adventure, more experiences, more time. But with all of that giving, we walk a line between providing them a better life, and making them entitled, spoiled brats.
I know you hear me.
So how do we walk that line? How do we cultivate appreciation for what we have worked so hard to give them without ruining them?
Walk with me, because this one requires a bit of honesty and reflection.
Kids that are gracious and that enjoy serving others have parents that are gracious and serve others. I know that it’s hard to look inward when it comes to this stuff, but the very first place to look and see where your kids get their attitudes towards “stuff” and other people? It’s you.
Regardless of what you tell them throughout the year, your kids will do as you do. If you want them to value service? Spend your time prioritizing service opportunities. Show them how to find needs in your community (more about this later).
If you want them to appreciate what they have? This is a big one - appreciate what you have.
Your kids will always, consistently, without fail or surprise, want the newest and best if that is the message that you are giving them because you always want the newest and the best. They won’t know or understand what it takes to get the newest and the best.
And if you are consistently complaining about what you don’t have - guess what message that gives them?
This isn’t an easy one to spot, because these messages of bigger, better, newer, more are programmed into our whole culture.
Notice the marketing that happens in your house, and how your whole family responds to it. Have conversations around it - at any age - and work to change all of your minds to not fall for the tricks!
No matter what time of year it is, I am asked by parents often how to get their kids to appreciate the value of a dollar. We all have different upbringing and different ideas about chores, allowances, and payment to our kids, so this one is a bit tricky.
I don’t know everything, but I do know that my kids appreciate their things a lot more when they buy them, or when they have to replace something that they broke due to not being careful with it. Or, due to lending it to someone else who didn’t care for it.
That last one is a big deal too. Yes, we teach our kids to share, but we also teach them to make sure that they share with people who aren’t careless with their things. And if we find that our friends aren’t careful with things that are important to us, then we don’t share with them. Why? Because the things that we choose to spend our hard-earned money on need to be taken care of.
And if something is broken, mom and dad aren’t expected to replace it - that was their choice, so they are responsible to replace it themselves.
We also implemented a policy in our home that a portion of every dollar that our kids earn (or receive in cash) goes to saving, and a portion goes to giving. They can choose what they are saving towards, and they can even choose who they are giving to (and that includes birthday party gifts - our kids buy those with their own money and have since they were about 7/8 years old, which also has shown them what it feels like to really give to people that they care about).
The rest of their spending money is theirs to do with what they wish, with the caveat that if you don’t find something important enough that you can spend your own money on it, mom and dad probably don’t want to spend theirs on it either.
Serving the Community
I’m going to get on my advocacy soapbox for a moment, so bear with me. I worked in nonprofits for many years and I’m going to tell you some really important stuff that nonprofit workers aren’t really supposed to say. Ready?
If you want to teach your kids that they have it really good, please look back to the first two points above, and don’t start with the idea that dragging them to tour a homeless shelter or to buy one toy to give to another child at Christmastime is going to do that.
Thinking of the bigger picture - that’s just a tiny little corner piece that barely registers if that is the biggest way that you are passing the message of gratitude and service along to them.
It’s not going to make them change their ways, it’s not going to make them appreciate their stuff, and it surely isn’t going to make a lightbulb go off that their life is amazing because they aren’t “them.”
In fact, what it often does is pass the message along that your status is much higher than those struggling with the issues of poverty or homelessness. It sends the message that these people are a sideshow for them to see - in practice, it sends the message that these people don’t deserve dignity and respect, and that they are different - generally less than, and in need of our saving.
I used to call these “poverty tours” when I got these calls in nonprofit - the idea that we can scare our kids straight by showing them poverty, and that this will whip them back into shape, seeing this as the alternative to their entitled life of privilege.
Please don’t do that. From the bottom of my heart.
And I know, I know. You don’t intend that to be the message - but that’s exactly what passes that message on. We dehumanize the very people that we are trying to serve, and this helps no one.
Instead, focus on the value that you’d like to pass on to your children and cultivate that in practice, consistently. Focusing on gratitude, kindness, and service throughout the year will be a much better use of your time and resources to pass along exactly the message that you intend.
If you have a heart to serve those experiencing homelessness, first of all, partner with an organization.
If you have a heart to serve children within the foster or adoption system, first of all, partner with an organization.
Notice a pattern?
Especially if you are new to serving these populations, keep in mind that sometimes we have our own ideas of what help looks like for certain groups, and these are often built upon problematic biases that we have developed that we don’t even realize.
So, partnering with organizations makes certain that our resources - time, stuff, and money - are all used in the best way to serve the populations that we care about.
Let those who do the work every day tell you where the needs are - they know.
I’ll answer your initial question for you: yes, there are opportunities for all ages - all of them, at every single organization.
And your kids of any age can help!
But it may not look the way you want it to.
Younger ones may better serve by doing things like: collecting canned goods or gently used toys from neighbors or fundraising in the name of an organization.
These aren’t as feel-good in the moment, but serving…. isn’t about you feeling good (another beautiful section of that painting to pass along! Service is about filling a need for someone else, not about what it does for you!).
These kinds of drives, though not necessarily as fun or interesting, can go a long way for those organizations.
A few other nonprofit asides since we are on the subject:
When you contact an organization, ask them what they need. They will tell you. There is no point doing a canned good drive if there isn't a need for canned goods - in fact, that can cause a burden for the organization having to store excess of something they don’t have need for.
Please note that new or gently used items mean that - new or gently used. If there’s a giant grease stain from Thanksgiving that you can’t get out and so you would be embarrassed wearing it - don’t give it to someone else that would also be embarrassed to wear it. Think, too, what this teaches our kids - that those in need just get what we consider trash. Not to mention that those overly worn donations put another undue burden on organizations that have to sort through them - and throw away the trash that you didn't.
And finally - don’t discount how important dollars are. Sometimes, especially during an overly-volunteer-abundant holiday season, money is the best thing that an organization that we care about can get. It allows them to provide services and supplies, pay skilled staff, and prepare their budget for the following year so that those populations can continue to get services all year long. Teaching your kids that you can give your - or their - very important dollars to others is a lesson that cannot be understated.
Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash
An attitude of service and gratitude needs to be cultivated over time.
If you want your kids to appreciate what they have and love serving others, they have to work towards those things throughout the year, not just during the holiday season.
So spend this season doing the research. Figure out what you want this to look like if you don’t already know. And then after the insanity of the holidays, contact those organizations and find out how you can serve. Trust me, they will be grateful to have people beyond the holidays.
Phew. End soap box.
The biggest question to reflect on here is what you want that overall painting of your children’s lives to look like in the long run. When you focus on those values consistently, it will come. Kids are selfish by nature, it’s part of how they survive, so your year-round modeling and reminders go a much longer way.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.