Spoiled Kids Need Lesson in Gift-Giving
November 22, 2012 4:36 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to teach my spoiled niece and nephew about the importance of giving this holiday season?

My brother and his wife have two terrific children: a boy (age 12) and a girl (age 9).

There is one big problem: They have a lot of stuff. A. lot. of. stuff. And, furthermore, they simply do not appreciate the stuff that they have.

In fact, they don't have time to play with it; they simply have been trained to consume, to own, to possess... to curate haphazard piles of American Doll merchandise or Lego's in their rooms amidst piles of forgotten toys and other items of fleeting importance. They live in a quintessential small-town American suburb in a new housing development that has what I would call "modest" McMansions (perhaps an oxymoron?). And they have everything they could possibly need: their own rooms, a backyard swing set, a playroom, tons of video games, toys galore, brand-name clothes, a big beautiful house, parents who buy them anything...

Am I envious? Possibly. Well, yes, okay I am... especially considering that I grew up in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. We didn't have a lot of stuff but we appreciated the stuff that we did have. This isn't because we were inherently grateful children, however: We had to appreciate it because my dad promised that if we broke or lost something then it would not be replaced. So, for better or worse, we learned a lesson about ownership and appreciation at a young age.

My brother and his wife make some nice money, and there is nothing that I can do about the fact that they spoil their kids. Kids should be spoiled (to a degree), and it's not my place to tell the parents that I think the kids have too much stuff and that this could affect them negatively. This interest in possessing things has been encouraged by the parents (whether they know it or not), so bringing it up could potentially be disrespectful and critical of them, and I don't want to do that.

The potential problem is that I don't want my niece and nephew to grow up to be ungrateful A-holes who have an insatiable need to receive, receive, receive while never realizing the importance of giving. It appears to me that they don't really understand that other people don't have as much stuff as they do. They couldn't conceive of breaking something and not having it replaced. That is what really gets to me. I have heard my niece flippantly say "I'll just get a new one" after it was discovered that she had lost a Nintendo DS game. Trust me, I know that kids think money grows on trees, but it is really amplified with these two.

I just want them to know that there are kids out there right now who have so little while they have so much. I want them to feel better about giving than about receiving.

So, here is the meat of my post:

Does anyone know of any non-religious-based social programs that would connect my possession-laden niece and nephew with children/families who are not as fortunate? I have thought about Toys for Tots (an excellent program -- my husband was a recipient when he was little and so we donate every year), BUT I would like something that might actually give a name/face to the recipient. That is, with Toys for Tots, you buy a gift for a nameless someone and then drop it off. I would like something where my niece and nephew would buy a gift for a specific child. I think they would feel really good about themselves if they knew that another kid would be receiving the gift they purchased. Does that make sense? It humanizes the process, I suppose.

My plans were to give them each $25 and take them shopping for toys to donate. Or I thought that I could have them fill out a card or draw a picture and I include a check to an organization on their behalf. I thought about the micro-loan programs like Kiva -- does anyone have any experience with that?

I would LOVE to have something that will give me feedback that I can share with the kids so they know how they impacted a child/family. I want to encourage them to empathize, to be less selfish, and to start thinking about other people around them.

I really appreciate any ideas you can help me come up with!

P.S. For what it's worth, they are in Central Pennsylvania.

P.P. S. I am looking for non-religious programs because I think it is important that they give to anyone at any time without proselytizing -- no offense intended, I would simply like to keep it religious-less.
posted by paperclip2000 to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When you give money to needy classrooms via DonorsChoose, you get tons of feedback from the teachers and you can also sign up for personalized thank you notes from the students themselves.
posted by elizardbits at 4:46 PM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm a longtime Kiva supporter - at any given time I have a few hundred circling in the system. Kiva is kind of fun because you get to pick who you support, but I'm not sure it would be any more personal than dropping off a toy for Toys for Tots.

Something where the kids get to directly interact with less fortunate kids (hopefully in person) would be better, IMO.
posted by zug at 4:55 PM on November 22, 2012

You say the kids are terrific? If there is no tradition in the home of giving you can't expect them to know how to give. Home Alone 3 has a pretty good message along the lines you want. If nothing else move the old stuff to Goodwill to start. Almost every mall has a giving tree but there are no face to face meetings. Ask them to help you shop for a boy and a girl their age, tell them your budget and see if they get into helping you. You can learn the gift of giving at almost any age so don't be in a rush to get it done this year. Next year help out an animal shelter they would get to meet the critters.
posted by pdxpogo at 4:59 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I grew up like this (for part of my childhood), probably because my mother and father both grew up like you did and they didn't want that life for me.

Honestly, buying things for poor kids doesn't teach empathy, it basically teaches that being a good person is something else you can buy. I know that it didn't teach me to take care of my things or that resources were limited--because as far as I was concerned, they weren't limited at all. I didn't have an underlying sense of insecurity about my financial position, which is actually a good thing--being anxious or insecure actually really sucks as a kid.

So, coming from your niece and nephew's position, the thing that would have helped me the most would have been some sort of budgeting exercise or information, to lessen the sting when the money dried up. Teaching them how money and spending work (how much work it takes to earn X dollars, for example) would do them a world of good.

Or maybe some requirement to give up something they really need or cherish in order to help someone else...but I highly doubt that their parents would allow that.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:02 PM on November 22, 2012 [25 favorites]

Something where the kids get to directly interact with less fortunate kids (hopefully in person) would be better, IMO.

IMO it would not. We do not treat poor people as object lessons. The reason projects like NYCares serve anonymous recipients is partly to protect them from class tourism. It's potentially really exploitative.

OP, there is a degree to which this is an appropriate problem. They don't earn the money, they're 9 and 12, and they don't have a context beyond their immediate families to assign value to money beyond what their parents are demonstrating. There is an extent to which Life will adjust this for them as they move out into the world. I speak from some experience here.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:09 PM on November 22, 2012 [62 favorites]

You'll need to search for the specific municipalities you're willing to participate in, but one good program for this is Adopt-A-Family. Sometimes they'll use a church as a base, but it's never about proselytising - it's just convenience.

You can call 211 and see if they have orgs they know about, too - I'm sure they get calls of this type at this time of year.

You can also call some likely candidates, like a family shelter or the CPS rescue center (this one might be hard to reach) to see what's possible. Hospitals that care for kids without money are a good bet, too.

Sometimes radio stations, TV news teams, and local papers are good sources for this sort of thing. If any of them have a community service email address or phone number, I'd hit that up and see what info they have.

It's a good idea, but keep in mind that you can't teach empathy with one experience. If you can propose a regular activity that shows them how fortunate they are while genuinely helping others they may relate to, that might have more lasting impact.

I wish you success in helping them see beyond the stuff. It's a hard row to hoe with a potentially beautiful harvest.
posted by batmonkey at 5:09 PM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are they close to Hershey? Check out opportunities for holiday giving to clients of the Hershey Ronald McDonald house (.pdf flyer). ["NEW toys and games for children of all ages (i.e. Barbie dolls, Lego kits, hand-held electronic toys, and infant toys. Coloring books, adult crossword/game books, passes to local attractions, & family DVD’s (G to PG-13 Rating)."]
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:17 PM on November 22, 2012

Have you thought about having them join an extracurricular program whose participants cross class and race lines? That way it's not so much centered around stuff and more around empathy.
posted by spunweb at 5:23 PM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I worry that charitable donations will not really drive it home, especially if you just give them the money to give to others. How would they make the connection that $25 is a lot of money to some people, when it just fell from the sky into their hands, and tends to all the time?

Here's a left-field idea. Take them shopping and tell them they get to buy their OWN Christmas presents from you this year, but only give them $25 (or whatever) and explain how far that money would have to go for many families. Or even better -- they have to buy two presents -- one for themselves and one each for each other.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:26 PM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

A young friend (age7) is asking for donations to Heifer International this year instead of presents. She's really into animals so she likes the idea of getting some for other kids. Other friends have pooled together to give money to a school for girls in Africa. The benefits of such programs are more enduring than toys.

You might also give them books about children in less-privileged circumstances. Well-written fiction helps kids, and adults, to develop empathy.
posted by mareli at 5:32 PM on November 22, 2012

I'd echo those discouraging you to expose the niece and nephew to the "less fortunate." In my family, my mom's side was always pretty hard up for money, whereas my uncle and his wife became quite well to do. I remember going to some charity Christmas event as a child where I was the object of the charity and it just felt terrible. I always had the sense that my uncle felt he was our benefactor and that throwing his money around made up for subtle and unsubtle ways that he treated us unkindly. Being a good person is a lot more subtle than just cash donations.

I'm not saying it's not a good thing to serve others and give of your time and energy, but there's a certain way that it can become this self-satisfied "class tourism," which is the apt term someone else used. There's a fine line between serving others as your brothers and sisters and this nameless feeling of doing a favor to someone beneath you.
posted by mermily at 5:41 PM on November 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Donations to the BookyMobile?

Here is an excellent idea from a Pennsylvania Humane Society: Kids collect pet supplies and donate them to the shelter. (If you're willing to consider the needs of the furry, of course.)

United Way Capitol Region's youth volunteerism list (your relatives may be too young for many of these this year, but you may find a good match in this list).

Operation Santa Claus.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:55 PM on November 22, 2012

It's going to be hard to imprint this message within a month of Christmas. Much like volunteering at the soup kitchen, opportunities and impact might be greater when taken out of the context of "charity happens at Christmas" and "buy this awesome thing that lights up and has the Twilight logo on it." This is a year-'round and lifelong lesson.

Also, what do your brother and his wife think of your idea? Your post makes it pretty clear that you disagree with the way they are raising their kids, and though you say you don't want to criticize what they're doing, it's a very real possibility that they will take it that way, especially if you're deciding to unspoil their kids without their input or participation.
posted by catlet at 5:56 PM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with the others. Giving to the "needy" will most likely just make them feel superior.

I suggest you bide your time and wait for those moments when they need an alternative frame of reference to their ultimately dissatisfying consumerism.

And give them the gift of time with you or lessons on how to do something (like a one-time cooking class, maybe with you!)

You can't have a very big impact on them except over time, and when it's just not working for them and they're searching for something else.

Aim to be the person they talk about in therapy 20 years from now when they're asked "who liked you for you?

Registering your moral aversion to how they're being led through life isn't going to make you that person.

(I speak from experience)
posted by vitabellosi at 5:59 PM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

You ask about programs, and I'm sure people will help you turn up whatever programs are out there. But if the key word is "connect" -- that's harder.

Connect literally? Sure, organizations sometimes put comfortable kids alongside poor waifs for a period of time. Does the experience actually change the comfy ones' attitudes, thought processes, world view? I'm waiting for the data on that.

I'm not saying a concerned, decent, empathetic adult can't help a child interpret the world and make a difference in this fundamental matter of empathy. But how exactly that happens, I confess I don't know. I hope you'll pursue it.

Also consider something like this: Take them to the closest civil rights museum and show them b&w photos. Show them the teenage black girls in a jail cell in Albany GA and help them notice how the girls are dancing and laughing and carrying on in the very maw of a very evil beast. That's the kind of thing -- not just misery and oppression, but people standing up and fighting back -- that clinched it for me.

Full disclosure: I believe empathy to be the most important of all human traits, and I think it's native for some and learnable for others.
posted by LonnieK at 6:09 PM on November 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's a good chance that if you go the charity route, the kids are just going to hate it and complain about not getting "real" presents. Lots of kids don't have well-developed senses of empathy, and some of the lessons adults try to teach them go over a little weird. Having them donate gifts to "appreciate what they have" might seem like "finish your peas, you know there are starving children in insert-country-here." Or it might even feel like punishment - which you definitely don't want!

I really like the idea of giving them books that might open their eyes and hearts a little. Or give experiences or non-replaceable things as gifts, like a trip to the zoo or gift certificates to a paint-your-own-pottery place.

And I agree that the best way for you to teach this lesson is to be a regular positive influence. If the kids regularly see that you are kind, gracious, live modestly, and value helping others, they'll absorb that a lot better than they would from a single forced event.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:22 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Proceed with caution: make sure you talk to the parents first. You are not their parents, and teaching them this "lesson" is not necessarily your place. Un-spoiling a kid and teaching empathy, appreciation etc... is something that happens over months and years - not overnight. It's a whole, complex, value system - and you're questioning it. The parent's response could range from a bland "that's nice" to being affronted and feeling judged. (The latter was our experience.)

This is the case with 4 of my 5 nephews... I sympathize. My nephews are 9 (twins), 5, and 2. My bohemian leftist intellectual husband and I are not close with the parents, and not close to the boys - this issue of materialism being a big one, though certainly not the only (and yes, the dad grew up very poor and is very clearly over compensating). It's so bad the grandparents are complaining!

Assuming your relationship will all parties is better, I agree with giving them the gift of spending more time with you (vitabellosi has excellent suggestions... love the fourth line!). Non-tangible things, and spending time with you over the long run will expose them to other ideas and give them another adult role model, someone they can ask questions of, etc... Doing something like this for my nephews would either a) start a fight between us and the parents or b) not sink in At. All.

We don't get them presents anymore... kinda sad, but they barely know us, and they HAVE EVERYTHING. I mean, how do you compete with iphones and custom-built professional surfboards??? The main thing I've learned interacting with these kids & their parents is that I'm *not* their parent, this is *not* my lesson to teach, and it's none of my business. Be there for them, like them for who they are, and when they have a quarter-life-crises because they don't know how to balance a checkbook be there to teach them how. Live your life as an example of wholeheartedness and generosity, and let them watch.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:22 PM on November 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

If this really deeply bothers you, you should discuss it with the parents, because you want to address long term patterns of behavior. Unfortunately, you just don't have the time and level of influence needed to make a difference. A culture of giving doesn't result from one aunt exposing them to needy people - More likely, from what you describe, that will just annoy/disgust them, and next year they'll piss and moan to their parents to avoid having to go out with you around the holidays.

In real life, people don't tend to have a "Scrooge" moment when they suddenly realize the error of their ways and turn into kindhearted selfless benefactors to all mankind.
posted by pla at 6:37 PM on November 22, 2012

Do you ever volunteer on your own, personally? If so, invite them along separately from Christmas, and get them a Christmas present they want. Otherwise, they won't learn the lesson you think they will. They'll just see it as punishment or as you giving crappy presents.

If you don't volunteer, you really have no business judging them.
posted by empath at 6:45 PM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

BUT I would like something that might actually give a name/face to the recipient.

A few others have touched on this, but I wanted to expand a bit more generally. In my house, our faith teaches that charity should be given as secretly as possible. That not only means not letting third-parties know of charitable activity, but to not even let the recipient know its source. (we are not Jewish, but Maimonides's eight levels of charity convey a very similar belief). If you are determined to do this, I would not focus on a face-to-face encounter with the recipient of the charity. (this is not to say that one must give anonymously or not at all, but we do not believe that one should seek recognition) So, I would support something like Toys or Tots. Or, they could give some of their old toys to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or another such charity. Of course, don't do anything without your brother's blessing.

Also, on the point of "I'll just get a new one", I have said similar things to my children to teach that things do not matter very much. For example, last year I was out with my son and lost my cellular phone and he thought that he had lost the phone, which caused him great distress. I told him that losing the phone did not matter because it is only a thing that can be replaced. However, Tanizaki Jr. cannot be replaced. I don't know your brother or his family as well as you, but it possible that your niece might have been stating such a sentiment as well as most nine-year-olds could.

Lastly, as more than one commenter has said, these are not your children. While you are a presence in their lives, they are your brother's to raise as he sees fit. Don't do anything on this topic without his approval. And, you may wish to think how much of this is about you rather than your niece and nephew. Is this for the benefit of these children, or to somehow impose a penance because they are well off? Other than the comment about the DS game, you haven't mentioned any indication that these children do not appreciate their good fortune. You say the problem is that they have "too much stuff", but I do not understand how you come to that conclusion. Who gets to decide how much stuff *you* get to have?
posted by Tanizaki at 6:56 PM on November 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

Taking this in a totally different direction, if you want to teach them the meaning of giving, help them make/choose really thoughtful presents for others in the family - perhaps their grandparents? For this to work well, you would want to be actively involved in the process. (Kids this age need support turning good ideas into an action plan and then following it) Learning to think about what other people would like and making an genuine effort to produce it would teach some good values in a concrete way. After all, generosity is a good value that is different from although related to charity.

For charitable gifts, Donors Choose is nice option in that they can spend time looking at the requests and deciding what would mean the most to them. They will also get a thank you note (months later) from the teacher with pictures of their gift in use.
posted by metahawk at 7:32 PM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with those who say that this shouldn't need to be attached to Christmas.

If you are a person who believes in charitable work and giving, then be that person, throughout the year, yourself, and invite your niece and nephew to be part of that - whether it means tree planting, gathering food bank donations and dropping them off, volunteering at a fundraiser race event or whatever.

If you're not that person, you need to become that person before you can show them how to be that person.

One of the most pernicious difficulties in the charitable world is that a lot of people only think about giving at Christmas (and end of year tax time). But need is year round. If you're a person who responds to the need of others, try to work toward doing that year-round, yourself. Set the example and be the model for your brother's kids. Invite them in to something you already do, rather than try to insert charity as a corrective into their lives, a medicine to be taken along with the joy of Christmas.

So do think about how you can introduce them to the world of giving, which is a lifelong joy and, for many, also an ethical obligation. But plan to start in January, and think about how that looks all year. Meanwhile, for Christmas, think of ways to do thoughtful things for others as usual, and sure, shop for a needy child together. But instead of thinking of it as a Christmas-only intervention in a too affluent life, think of it as something that's important to you, that you're sharing with your niece and nephew, and doing yourself, all year round, and will for a lifetime, because it's important. And that charitable and generous nature that you want them to have really has not much to do with how much stuff they themselves own, at the heart of it.
posted by Miko at 7:44 PM on November 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Someone mentioned class tourism as an issue but seriously face to face volunteerism eradicates much of that. Bring them with you and spend a day somewhere volunteering, ideally at a place they can visit weekly.
posted by bquarters at 8:12 PM on November 22, 2012

On late preview, the comment above basically states it.
posted by bquarters at 8:13 PM on November 22, 2012

Wow, this is really terrific feedback -- thank you so much for all of your thoughtful answers on this.

I agree with the others. Giving to the "needy" will most likely just make them feel superior.

Gosh, I didn’t think of it this way. Point taken. What I want to instill within them is a sense of giving back and doing good for society. The way that I thought would be most accessible and most understandable to them would be to help a kid their age who needs help. Ack, I didn’t even think about the potential for it to be more divisive through a sense of superiority. I study social issues, so you’d think that would have crossed my mind. Also, I was NOT thinking of a face-to-face meeting -- that would be uncomfortable and possibly inappropriate, I think. I was only thinking about a charity that would give feedback (like a thank you note) to the kids so they knew that what they did was a good thing. I personally like the idea of giving anonymously, but I thought that perhaps the idea and importance of being charitable would become more concrete if the kids had some sort of feedback (and not praise just from me). Perhaps the idea of kids needing recognition is a bad one…

Honestly, buying things for poor kids doesn't teach empathy, it basically teaches that being a good person is something else you can buy.

That is an excellent point. I thought of that, too. I thought, though, that the immediacy of money would more easily lend itself to the concept of charity. Okay, you have me thinking now…

I worry that charitable donations will not really drive it home, especially if you just give them the money to give to others. How would they make the connection that $25 is a lot of money to some people, when it just fell from the sky into their hands, and tends to all the time?

And now I am re-thinking the whole giving-them-money-to-give-to-someone-needy idea. You’re right. On the more cynical end, the lesson that they learn is that when Aunt Paperclip takes them out to do their yearly charity run, all they have to do is spend money -- that = fun! On the more optimistic end, the fact that they have to then give the toys away may make them realize that they are going to another real person in need. That is a harder connection to make, though.

Also consider something like this: Take them to the closest civil rights museum and show them b&w photos. Show them the teenage black girls in a jail cell in Albany GA and help them notice how the girls are dancing and laughing and carrying on in the very maw of a very evil beast. That's the kind of thing -- not just misery and oppression, but people standing up and fighting back -- that clinched it for me.

Thanks for mentioning that this kind of experience affected you as a child. I volunteer at a museum and I was able to take my niece to see an exhibit that gave me the ability to talk about class division and social justice issues -- in a very simple way (e.g. “Wow, look at the little girl in that picture, she is just like you! She wasn’t allowed to use that water fountain -- can you imagine not being able to use a water fountain if you are thirsty unless it was a special one based on your skin color?”). The parents aren’t really big into talking about stuff like that and we do not tend to get into discussions of that nature. In fact, the mom had mentioned something anti-gay to me years ago and was proud about it. Being an LGBT supporter, that made my heart hurt (being younger at the time, I lacked a voice, but nowadays I am much more vocal and would stand up to a statement like that). As for the kids, I would like to take them both to more exhibits like that -- not so I can force it down their throats, but just so they can be exposed to it.

Proceed with caution: make sure you talk to the parents first. You are not their parents, and teaching them this "lesson" is not necessarily your place. Un-spoiling a kid and teaching empathy, appreciation etc... is something that happens over months and years - not overnight. It's a whole, complex, value system - and you're questioning it. The parent's response could range from a bland "that's nice" to being affronted and feeling judged. (The latter was our experience.)

This… makes a lot of sense. I never intended to change them overnight in a Scrooge-esque moment; I simply wanted to begin a consistent pattern of charitableness (and not necessarily during the holidays -- it’s just on my mind right now since I’ll be seeing them soon and often see them on the holidays). My actions could speak louder than words and do the same damage, however. That is, I might not outright tell the parents that I disagree with their fostering of endless consumerism within their children but the fact that I take them on a journey to buy toys for others or otherwise be charitable could still be an affront to their parenting sensibilities. I don’t want to do that. Thank you for pointing that out. (Plus, buying toys is even more consumerism and a little contradictory to my own principles! Sheesh, Paperclip)


So, I guess my thoughts so far on the “un-spoiling” of my niece and nephew are that, while I really have good intentions, it may not work the way I am imagining that it works. I am a firm believer in spending time with them -- not spending money on them. In fact (and this might sound terrible), we rarely get them gifts because: 1) we’re disillusioned with the process, 2) they already have everything, and 3) they don’t appreciate it anyway. I love the book idea, I really do, but... Can I tell you a quick story here? Yes? Good. I sent a big box of gifts (clothing -- it's a pretty safe bet) to my nephew for his birthday and I didn’t want to leave my niece out, so I included a little book at the bottom of the box for her. It was my favorite picture book from my childhood. But the great thing about it was that my husband drew some super cute pictures for her on a piece of paper. These were pictures of her doing tasks (like eating applesauce) in an incorrect way (like dumping it on her head). We did this because, when we had most recently gotten together, we must have spent an hour being silly making up creative ways to do something wrong (“This is how Uncle Paperclip walks! [hops like bunny]…This is how Aunt Paperclip wears her jacket! [on her legs]” etc, etc.). We put the paper in the book so that when she read the book, she would find the paper and laugh. Well, we asked her a few weeks later if she read the book and if she saw the drawings that Uncle Paperclip had drawn for her. She didn’t. In fact, she had LOST the book. We were both really disappointed with this. She couldn’t even take the time to flip through a present we bought her to find these really cute pictures. This is one of the reasons why we don’t buy gifts and why we’d rather spend time with them. (I may be judging harshly, but I'm sure you can imagine my frustration.)

As for the ideas that you lovely people have posted -- thank you! I will look into your ideas about animal shelters, hospital wards, Adopt-a-Family, the Ronald McDonald House, United Way, Donors Choose, and the multitude of others. Thank you, Batmonkey and MonkeyToes for the list of ideas (any relation, btw? I see a Wheel of Fortune “Before and After” puzzle there).

The idea of leading by example seems to be the real winner, however. Or at least including them in some charitable activity that I’m involved in so they can be exposed to the concept. Perhaps I could take one of them with me to the museum when I volunteer. Or maybe I could find more ways to expose them to charity without throwing money at them and telling them to spend it. I’ve always been interested in something more dynamic (that’s why I was interested in something that would have given them feedback and, hence, positive reinforcement that what they did was something good). I like to find lessons in everyday things (without being too “teacher-y”) and I am glad that some of you have commented that that would be effective.

Something simple like dropping food off at a food drive is an excellent idea. It plants a seed and that is all I would like.

Ultimately, though, I will obviously not not have as much impact on their personalities and the people that they become as their parents will. I realize that. And some of you have stated in as many words that maybe it's not my business to be all righteous and in their faces (to both parents and kids) about being charitable. I mean, they're not my kids. But I do care about them and the people that they will become. If I can be any kind of positive influence, then I would like to do that. Caring for others who are less fortunate is important to me, which is why I would like to foster that quality in my niece and nephew. But maybe Tanizaki is right -- maybe this is more about me than it is about them. And of course there is no metric for determining when someone has "too much stuff." Maybe it's not enough stuff. Who am I to judge this?

Maybe I should just let it alone and just do the charitable stuff that I do while trying to include them (with their parents' permission).

Thank you all again for your input. You guys are really awesome. Seriously.
posted by paperclip2000 at 9:15 PM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Just one more thought -- it sounds like your real basic interest is in cultivating these kids' empathy, not just teaching them to appreciate the value of stuff. Which is good, since it's going to be extremely difficult for them to think of money and stuff as scarce resources that have a value when that is in no way their personal experience (and there's nothing you, as the aunt, can do to change that). So instead of trying to develop their sense of empathy through their sense of money and generosity, maybe focus more attention on engaging their empathy in ways that seem to suit their personalities as they already are -- that museum exhibit sounds great, especially since kids often take fairness ("but why couldn't she use the same water fountain?") really seriously. If they become generally empathetic people, they'll probably be financially generous as well once they get a little older, spend more time away from their parents, and develop a more sophisticated sense of money as separate from sunlight and water.

Also, I don't think you're judging harshly to want to spend time instead of stuff, because stuff clearly doesn't signify love to them as it might to other people.
posted by ostro at 9:38 PM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think being a certain type of role model, teaching them certain things, and giving them books that show empathetic situations are all good ways you can reach, cultivate, and ultimately bring out the benevolence and empathy that they probably have somewhere inside them. I think those are the best ways you can help them discover it. I think the bigger risk than them becoming rotten, uncaring people is of them becoming people who can't deal well with adversity, challenge, and denial of things they want. It's important to learn how to deal with not getting what you want in order to become resilient, and that's something their parents will be in a better position to deal with. So you should talk to them about it.
posted by Dansaman at 10:13 PM on November 22, 2012

You mention that you value spending time with them (as opposed to spending money on them). Can you express that to them? Say, spend the day with them (either together or individually), then send a note in the mail to say how much you enjoyed your outing?
My thinking here is that they may have been taught that stuff = appreciation, but this is a chance to show them otherwise.
posted by third word on a random page at 12:42 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your goals are noble, but charity is not the antidote for materialism. If you help them buy toys for underprivileged kids, you're inadvertently reinforcing the importance of toys.
posted by acidic at 1:22 AM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

At that age, I was volunteering in soup kitchens once a month and did until I was about fifteen, at which point I volunteered at our area hospital every summer until I was eighteen.

It was a time invested method of giving back on my end as I didn't have my own money to donate.
posted by zizzle at 5:14 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of great thoughts above, but one thing I haven't seen suggested is simply giving them some responsibility when they're with you. When you spend time with them, don't just do things for them. If you're going to a movie, give them cash and have them pay for the snacks. Take them grocery shopping to buy the food that you cook together. At this age, they'll appreciate having "grown up" jobs, and you'll start planting the idea that things have to be worked for.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:08 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

They couldn't conceive of breaking something and not having it replaced. That is what really gets to me. I have heard my niece flippantly say "I'll just get a new one" after it was discovered that she had lost a Nintendo DS game. Trust me, I know that kids think money grows on trees, but it is really amplified with these two.

Yes, this seems to be the real problem. Lots of toys and stuff does not make a bad or ungrateful person. You get into trouble when you believe you can buy yourself out of a problem or that money will solve problems. This is something that could follow them into adulthood. If they could do one thing it would be to stop replacing broken or lost toys.

The problem isn't toys or stuff. Volunteering as a teenager is most often done because it looks good on a college resume. It won't necessarily teach empathy or the value of a dollar. It's seen by lots of teenagers as an obligation. Giving makes the giver feel good. The real test will come when they're teenagers and adults. Will mom and dad solve their problems with money? Will they make excuses for them, bail them out, or pay for them to retake a failed class at college? That's the real question.

If mom and dad are hard-working, ambitious types there is a good chance they will pass that on to their kids. A lot of people show love with gifts. My kids (ages 9 and 12) don't have a lot of toys. Only because I think most toys are junk and I don't like the clutter. I don't buy them stuff on a regular basis. I grew up in a trailer too and I pretty much behave like my parents did. My kids get stuff on birthdays, Christmas, and back to school. That's about it. Their rooms are pretty barren apart from board games, books, and Lego kits. They have their technology and buy stuff with "their own money" but that money comes as gifts from grandparents and aunts and they never had to lift a finger to earn any of it. They don't have a lot of stuff and we aren't buyers but they are still pretty clueless when it comes to the value of a dollar. They're kids and they'll learn eventually. Probably the hard way like I did.
posted by Fairchild at 7:45 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are plenty of good ideas here already... I just want to say that I don't think you have to throw out the idea of teaching about charity just because you're not their parent and it won't necessarily teach them to value stuff/not to be materialistic. Teaching kids to be charitable has stand-alone value and it is really worth doing if you can find ways of doing it that are fun, meaningful, and not preachy.

I just wanted to add what I think is a great website for getting 'feedback' from your donation.

SeeYourImpact is a really cool site where you can make a specific donation of something like a mosquito net, safe water, education, etc. and then within 2 weeks you are guaranteed to get a photo and a story of a recipient of said thing. My organization is one of their partners and they are really an awesome group. They ensure that all gifts cover the necessary costs to actually execute the program, which is totally appreciated.

This website gets around some of the criticisms leveled previously at similar efforts - getting people gifts of education or safe water isn't something that encourages materialism, even though you do have to use money to do it, the point isn't the money (so it doesn't matter that you give them the money to do it), the point is seeing what the money can do and how it can change lives. And you get a personal connection with a recipient, but it's not in the 'class tourism' sense, you are anonymous to the recipient, but you just get to see some people who are grateful for your help and who are probably pretty amazing people thriving in challenging circumstances who you are going to feel great about helping. I'm a many-times donor on Kiva as well and although I love the photos, the updates you get from the recipients are typically totally generic, and sometimes (like, not rarely) your loan defaults and that's not ideal (kids this age would not understand why there is and must be a built-in risk of default with loans in situations like these), plus it takes quite a long time to get the updates and for the loan to be repaid, for kids with a shorter attention span. Obviously I'm biased but I think kids could definitely take away something of value from SeeYourImpact.

One other idea would be to give a book or movie that has some inspiring ideas in it. Even kids who have a lot of Stuff in their lives can be made to notice and get motivated about others in need - especially other kids. The success of the Invisible Children movement showed me this and I think their movie is a good example of how this can be done (notice I am NOT necessarily recommending Invisible Children as a charity you want to give to or motivate these kids about based on a complex side story which I don't need to get into here, but it's the concept I wanted to highlight).

If you want to be more subtle, a book like Hatchet is really interesting in terms of a story about a kid who is a model of self sufficiency and who is living without the comforts that we take for granted. It would make an interesting springboard for discussion.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:59 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

@Treehorn+bunny: Thanks for the SeeYourImpact link -- that seems to be a really cool program. There is certainly something to be said for the value in the gift-giver receiving some sort of feedback. And I feel that this is especially true for kids since they are so impressionable. To receive a brief story and a photo about how their gift impacted a real person, well, I view that as positive reinforcement that only encourages them to do more of the same. It could be class tourism, though, and that's a tricky line to walk. I would have to present it in a way that they do not perceive it as an I'm-better-than-this-person-because-I-have-money-and-they-don't lesson.

Speaking of Hatchet, that is one of my favorite books from my childhood! It's actually on a list of books that I would like to get for them in the near future (this list also includes the Laura Ingalls Wilder books -- I remember being amazed at the fact that she was SO happy when she got a home-made calico doll, an orange, and a peppermint stick for Christmas -- it was so simple and modest yet so appreciated).
posted by paperclip2000 at 9:35 AM on November 23, 2012

Another thought -- if you're thinking about empathy, how are they with making stuff for people they know? I think it often starts there. You could even give a present that is just for making gifts for other, like a pot-holder loom, or get together to make Christmas presents for their parents or friends. That way they are giving what they have (time and energy) to people they care about. (And I think other people touched on ways to care about people you don't know and extend that empathy.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:49 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite thing about my sister as a parent is her no-stuff policy when it comes to gift-giving.

Their house is small and they really put a lot of thought into (and enjoy) curating the toys, clothes and other accessories for their child, so they've asked everyone else to focus on offering fun and/or educational experiences. It gives us all excuses to kidnap the baby for activities we can all enjoy, and in the long run it will teach her the importance of spending time with loved ones and of defining yourself by what you do and not what you have.

That could be a way for you to get around the materialism issue without directly attacking your brother's parenting skills. Adopt the no-stuff policy and start taking the kids out on adventures, where you'll have a chance to have fun together and to teach them new skills and values on the sly.
posted by Freyja at 1:53 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

The potential problem is that I don't want my niece and nephew to grow up to be ungrateful A-holes who have an insatiable need to receive, receive, receive while never realizing the importance of giving.

I grew up in a family much like what you describe. My parents set some limits, and they definitely tried to instill in us that "stuff" is not the most important thing in the world. But I grew up in an upper middle class family and I had my own room, tons of toys (even an American Girl Doll!), birthday parties, a swimming pool in the backyard, all the lessons and summer programs and activities I could ever want, travel to amazing places, an almost-new car at seventeen, etc etc etc. Name a consumer item that a spoiled little girl would have, and I probably had it.

And yet, I grew up just fine. I'm about as anti-consumerist as it gets. It feels weird to say about myself, but I'm extremely grateful for everything I have (which as an adult is vastly less lavish than the lifestyle I grew up with). I donate as much as I can possibly afford to charity, and I volunteer. I'm not materialistic in the least, in fact I've given up almost all my possessions several times over. It feels a little weird to visit my parents in McMansion land, and sometimes I'm ashamed of my background and all the things I took for granted as a child.

I'm not saying "Yay, stuff for everyone! Spoil the shit out of those kids!" But bottom line, this shakes out according to the character of the person. There's no alternative Christmas present you can give or soup kitchen field trip you can take them on that is going to impart these values. It mostly comes from life experience, and also to a certain degree empathy.

If you were to try to impart any of this to your niece and nephew, I think the most worthwhile thing would be empathy rather than some sort of ascetic lifestyle or a judgmental attitude about how lame suburbia is. Help your niece and nephew be good people. They'll take care of their toys themselves.
posted by Sara C. at 10:06 PM on November 27, 2012

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