The Kids in America

August 30, 2005    By: Kristen J @ 1:30 pm   Category: Life

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to raise kind and compassionate children. I think I know how to teach them to have compassion for those they know personally, but I’m not sure I know how to teach them to have compassion and take some responsibility for people they don’t personally know. For that matter I’m not sure if I know how to do that myself.

Let’s face it — a lot of the kids in America are raised in white, middle-class suburbia. This is where I’m raising my own children. There are actually some really great things about raising your kids in an area like this. There are usually a lot of other children to play with and studies have shown that playtime for children is very important. There are great community programs to get your kids involved in (as long as you don’t overload them, but that’s another post), and it is often a safe place to raise your kids.

One of the things that concern me most about raising my children in this environment is the strong possibility that they will become very egocentric. It seems to me that the way a lot of children are raised leads them to believe that their parents’ lives and the lives of many others (teachers, coaches, friends) should revolve around them. I’m wondering how you would avoid this.

A couple of days ago I was with a group of women from church, all mothers, and I asked them how they went about teaching their children how to have compassion for those who are less fortunate than they are and how to be grateful for the blessings they have. Most of the answers were a long the lines of, “Oh, I give Johnny a list of chores and if he doesn’t finish them than he doesn’t go anywhere.” Or “I make him work for his allowance, if he doesn’t get his jobs done he doesn’t get paid.” I’m sure that those examples will teach children about hard work and money, but I’m not sure that it gets at teaching your kids to think of others on a more global level.

How do you teach your children how extremely fortunate they are to live the quality of life they do? How do you really show them that most of the people on the planet, past and present, have experienced life at a much less privileged and much more difficult level then they do? I guess I’m wondering how you teach them to have true and deep gratitude for their blessings and a willingness to help those around them.


  1. Some of what you want to teach will come with maturity. My childhood was not filled with the same material blessing that my children have, so I understand that a little.

    Our scout troop (both cub and boy scouts) annually serve meals at a local charity. The young women have made kits for the crisis nursery and provided toys for the mother’s safe house.

    Discussing with them why we give food to the food bank, what fast offering is really about, and the PEF, and Humanitarian funds…that they could contribe to could be helpful. I know these are more teaching and not hands on, but might be useful.

    I think we all need the lesson you’re trying to teach. We truly are blessed.

    Comment by don — August 30, 2005 @ 3:42 pm

  2. Well, you could do what I did. Be extremely poor for years and years.

    Comment by Susan M — August 30, 2005 @ 4:10 pm

  3. I totally understand that Susan. I grew up as a poor kid in an affluent neighborhood. Lot’s of life lessons there!

    Comment by Kristen J — August 30, 2005 @ 4:13 pm

  4. This is also a concern of mine, and I certainly have no answers, but perhaps some ideas. I imagine that you don’t have to travel too far to get to a place where people have less than you do. What if you arranged to do some volunteer work that your kids could come and either do with you or just be there? Right now I tutor a boy who lives in subsidized housing and my daughter comes and plays with my student’s younger sister. My daughter is too small to be a respecter of persons, but I hope that I can continue this sort of thing as she gets older.

    Also, as a teacher, I found many kids had almost no idea that people lived differently than themselves. There are a lot of movies and books that could help your kids get a more accurate view of the world. (Good for adults, too).

    I sometimes go and do school presentations about my Peace Corps experience in Kenya. Without fail, during question-time at the end, kids ask me what they can do to help the people in the community in which I worked. Provide kids with information, and they are naturally quite compassionate.

    Comment by ESO — August 30, 2005 @ 5:05 pm

  5. What your post made me think of first was a memory I have from when I was about 12. My nephew was over visiting, he must’ve been about 6? OK maybe we were both a little older. He said something to the effect of, “Why do you guys get to have so much stuff, and I don’t get anything?” He meant my brothers and I. We weren’t rich by any means, but my nephew had a mother (my sister) in a halfway house, a father in prison, and was being raised by his father’s parents, who couldn’t afford to be raising their grandkids.

    His question hit me hard. Because while compared to a lot of my friends, I had very little, but compared to my nephew, I had a lot.

    So I think the best way to teach children this principle is to show them.

    There’s a tradition in our ward for the youth to volunteer at a homeless shelter the night before Thanksgiving. It’s really an eye opener for them. My kids, who are used to being broke and having nothing, were even really affected by it. Mainly, I think, because there were so many children at the homeless shelter.

    Comment by Susan M — August 30, 2005 @ 5:09 pm

  6. I’ve got some of the same concerns and no definite answers. Here are a couple of things we’ve tried that I hope will pay off eventually.

    Like others have mentioned, volunteer among those less fortunate and bring along your children.

    Consistently pray for the poor and needy. Even praying generally will remind us and our kids that we should be grateful to God and helpful to others. But we can also pray for specific guidance in finding ways to help others.

    Build your own homeless kits and have one in the car at all times. Our kits include easily-eaten non-perishable food, drinks, gift certificates, breath mints, toiletries, etc. Our children are frequently on the lookout for homeless people by the side of the road. I find it easier to engage the homeless when I can tell them I have a gift from my daughters.

    To repeat other commenters, books and movies are a tremendous teaching tool. A few recent movies we’ve seen that I would recommend: Not One Less, about a 13-year-old girl hired as a school teacher in rural China. Children of Heaven, an Iranian film about a boy who loses his sister’s shoes so they have to share one pair to go to school. Color of Paradise, another Iranian film about a deaf boy who lives in the country and attends school in the city. I was amazed at how engaged and concerned my 4- and 6-year-olds were when watching these movies.

    Good luck, Kristen. This is a great question. Gratitude is way up on the list of attributes I’d like my children (and myself) to exhibit.

    Comment by Matt Jacobsen — August 30, 2005 @ 6:11 pm

  7. I was at a planning meeting for our (nonLDS) cub scout den last night. One woman talked about taking her kids to a soup kitchen. She said her kids were permanently changed by people’s reaction to canned goods and a loaf of bread.

    I’d try to have real service opportunites (real service is not bringing chocolate chip cookies to the bishop, although that’s a nice thing to do, too) with your children as much as possible.

    Comment by Julie in Austin — August 30, 2005 @ 6:41 pm

  8. I love all of your comments, I think giving service to those in need (not cookies to the bishop) is a definite key.

    Matt-I loved your comments about the homeless kits and the movies. After reading your comments I remembered how touched I was by movies like “The Killing Fields”. It’s a tool I hadn’t thought of.

    Comment by Kristen J — August 30, 2005 @ 7:49 pm

  9. Kristen, you guys live close enough to the border day trips to real life circumstances would be good as your children grow. We continually spent time in Tijuana and Ensenada purposely for our girls. We would go across the border, find a place to park, pay a child to watch our car for the day (explaining this is what some kids did to help their families eat, and possibly could be the only money made that day) then we would walk and look and notice the unfortunate circumstances around us. It became very easy to cull a toybox, or clothing box during the holidays.

    We also took the chance to explain economics to them. It wasn’t difficult because we really didn’t have all that much money. And each of us had grown up in very poor homes. My sister did a really good thing with her kids (I wish I had thought of it) – when her kids would ask for something that seemed frivolous she would take all the kids in the car to her husband’s work site. He was in the construction industry in the middle of the mohave desert. They could see him working in the heat (she’d roll the windows down and they knew how hot it was) and explain to them just how long it would take for their father to earn the money to pay for the requested item. Sometime sit would take all day. They would take lunch while he did with a sack lunch and water jsut like he did. Then they would discuss the merits of having dad spend all day or a few hours to fulfill the request. It made an impact that stays with them today.

    Comment by chronicler — August 30, 2005 @ 8:09 pm

  10. We actually went down to Mexico this past spring and we did have quite a few discussions about poverty while we were there. It did make quite an impact on my kids.

    Comment by Kristen J — August 30, 2005 @ 8:42 pm

  11. I love the idea of the youth volunteering at a homeless shelter. Perhaps they could “adopt” an orphan in Africa and send them stuff, if they had a picture or something.

    But, at the same time, I don’t think children in America should feel guilty because they were lucky enough to be born here. They should celebrate their heritage and rejoice as well. Giving back is part of that, but there is no shame in having a good life. They can feel gratitude and pride (in country–America is a good place), compassion and giving, at the same time. Make that grammatically correct in your mind.

    But, then again, I’ve had a difficult time teaching Buttgold to serve. She’s a very kindhearted girl, but she has no clue of going without, like I did. I took her with me a few years ago to take a meal into a family whose young son had been killed. She was awestruck, if I do say so myself, at this new person her mother became, as I ministered to, and loved those people and cried with them. It wouldn’t hurt to involve kids in those difficult times. Perhaps this would have to be one on one, you wouldn’t want to take a whole bunch of kids in at a time like that.

    I’m rambling. Because I’m avoiding those damn green beans and jars in my kitchen and these 600 wedding invitations stacked in my office. Sigh…this is not feminism.

    Comment by annegb — August 31, 2005 @ 8:59 am

  12. I think your right annegb we definitely should be grateful about the wonderful things we have.

    Can I put an order in for some green beans? I really miss my grandma’s home canned green beans. I’m avoiding laundry and dishes right now.

    Comment by Kristen J — August 31, 2005 @ 9:47 am

  13. I teach the 9-year olds in Primary and one Sunday the lesson was almost over before I realized that when I had mentioned that the church was organized in Peter Whitmer’s cabin, they had all assumed that I meant his vacation home. They made some comments about how many big screen TV’s were in their family’s cabins, etc. I have to admit that my first reaction was to wonder how relatively privileged kids these days are going to learn empathy and charity. Yet these are really lovely kids-they hold the door for me and are kind to new class members. As we talked more, they started to mention times when their dad helped someone with car trouble, or their mom was patient with someone in traffic. Their parents are modeling altruistic behavior.
    You are on the right track just by being aware of this issue. The best way to teach any character trait is to be that thing yourself. I love the story of President Kimball at the airport helping the pregnant mom with her crying child. The keys in this experience were 1- He was not so wrapped up in himself that he didn’t notice a problem, 2- He felt concern rather than judgement or irritation, 3- He took action.

    Comment by C Jones — August 31, 2005 @ 10:02 am

  14. I agree about the Mexico trip. That was a major eye-opener for our little ones. They actually do sometimes pray for “the poor people” now and it is not uncommon for one of them to suggest we give something to “the needy kids”.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 31, 2005 @ 10:04 am

  15. Teaching empathy has always been one of my biggest goals as far as what I feel I should accomplish as a parent. So far, I feel like my 8 year old has “got it.” We’re pretty firmly middle-class, and I don’t think she’s ever really known what it’s like to not have things she needs, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to let some “wants” go for a while. I kind of feel like delayed gratification is an important skill that can be learned. I don’t think a child can be “spoiled” with affection and attention, but I try to keep material possessions fairly simple.

    Another thing that has helped, I think, is talking about what life is like for people who don’t have it so good. The opportunities for these discussions come up frequently — while watching a movie (I had to explain why the bird lady scene in Mary Poppins made me cry, so I did, complete with an explanation of homelessness and mental illness), or while reading a book (the Christmases in the Little House books don’t closely resemble ours, but Laura & her siblings were perfectly happy), when we see homeless people on the street, or when we drop off donations to a charity-run thrift store. I think it’s good to involve kids in service, but you can never talk to them too much about why it’s important, or ask them to imagine themselves in situations different from their own.

    Comment by Allison — August 31, 2005 @ 11:37 am

  16. Interesting question. I adopted both of my kids from foster care. Recently, the DSS asked if I would be interested in fostering again. I told them I didn’t think I was ready for a full-time placement, but I’d be happy to do respite care.

    My kids were not enthused. They both explained how much they *hated* respite care when they were placed with other families. I told them that since they hated respite care when they were foster kids, they should look at it as an opportunity to make another foster kid’s life not suck so much. They also said the kids would be brats and probably try to steal from us… because that’s exactly what they used to do.

    Comment by V the K — August 31, 2005 @ 12:20 pm

  17. Yeah, Kristen, come on over, hon, I’ve got over 80 pints so far, and those beans show no signs of stopping.

    Comment by annegb — August 31, 2005 @ 8:02 pm