Grateful Parenting

Volunteering With Purpose

by Roxi Nevin


When my first child was a toddler, she had wonderful manners. As most parents do, we used repetition to encourage manners such as please and thank you, and it worked wonderfully. We were so proud of how polite she was, and how sincerely she thanked people when given a gift or compliment. A sincere “thank you” is a child’s first lesson in gratitude, and when you instill these values in children at a young age, we assume these values will stick. Around the time my daughter was 5, her father and I separated, which meant two of each holiday, two birthday parties, etc. Coupled with the fact that she was the first and only grandchild, somewhere along the way she lost sight of what it truly meant to be grateful.

The change was so gradual, that it went unnoticed for quite a long time. She was still polite, she still said please and thank you, so the moment I realized what had happened was quite a shock for me that I will never forget. She was 8 years old, it was Christmas time, and I had been lucky enough to have a prosperous year. I went a bit overboard on presents as parents sometimes do, and most of her family members did the same. By Christmas day she had already attended two other “Christmases,” and had received a generous number of gifts. And as I watched her open her presents, she seemed somewhat unimpressed by each gift she unwrapped. It wasn’t that she was necessarily rude, but something didn’t feel right about her reactions. She would say thank you but quite unenthusiastically compared to her normal personality, and it was worrisome to me that she had become “spoiled” by the sheer number of gifts that she had received.
I spent a long time wondering how to resolve this conflict. Considering that she hadn’t done anything necessarily wrong, I didn’t feel like it was right to make her feel bad, but at the same time, I wanted to make sure she was truly grateful for all the wonderful things she had been given. So that evening, an idea came to me that I hoped would provide a lesson she would remember into her adulthood fondly. We gathered all the gifts she had received in the middle of the room, and I asked her to separate each item into three piles. The first, being items she loved the most. It was easy to determine which items these were, as they were the first to be unpackaged. The second pile was for items that she really liked, but she didn’t feel like she would play with every day, but that she was still certain she really wanted to keep. The third pile was for items that didn’t fit into the first two categories. We discussed the various activities and items at length, and by the end of this activity, the piles were mostly equal in number.

I then explained that the first pile was hers to keep. The second pile would be put away, and at random occasions, as an award for good behavior or a good deed, she would get to pick something from that pile. The third pile was to be donated to children who weren’t as fortunate as we were. The next morning, we gathered the third pile and drove to the local women’s shelter. We explained why we were there and volunteered to help anywhere we were needed for the day. We spent the next 5 hours at that shelter, and the transformation in my child was immediately obvious. After giving the toys and games to the kids there, we spent time assisting in the kitchen and nursery, helping moms change diapers, watching babies so mothers could shower in peace, and doing what we could to help. I watched my daughter blossom at that moment, and it was quite extraordinary to see. It was at that moment that she found true gratitude in her heart and understood the purpose of our visit. She explained later that she knew there were people who didn’t have things like we did, but that she didn’t really understand what their lives were like. She told me that she wanted to volunteer there more often, and we did exactly
that. I hadn’t expected my lesson to become quite the success it was. From that point forward, she showed absolute and sincere gratitude with every gift she was given, every activity she was invited to, every compliment she received. She encouraged other people to volunteer. She would tell family members at birthdays and holidays that if they weren’t sure what to get, a donation to her favorite
charity would be appreciated. She spent her 17th birthday this year donating dog food to the animal shelter that she had purchased with her birthday money. I will never forget that Christmas, not because of the disappointment in her behavior, but because of the amazing gift of gratitude we were all given because of that experience.