When the holidays approach parents often think about teaching their children the importance of giving to others. Many families will then trek on down to the nearest soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, perhaps to man the reception desk there, or to help serve the meal to those who would otherwise have nowhere to go. This admirable activity may not have the desired effect on the children we bring to this event, and could even backfire, for several reasons.
“The 7-year-old is making more work for the agencies,” said Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “They’re too young to move stuff around, and they can’t really be around anything hot, or knives. The time it would take to instruct them is more than it would take for an adult.”
In other words, taking children to a soup kitchen can actually hinder rather than help, and children can feel this.
But Berg has another reason not to bring the kids to the soup kitchen:
“Even very young kids have a built in b.s. detector,” Berg said. “If you send them to a food pantry or kitchen on Thanksgiving that normally has 10 people volunteering, and there are 55 people there, they’re going to see in a heartbeat that there are people standing around and doing nothing, and they’ll get cynical.”
Berg says there are other, better ways for kids to help out those less fortunate. One suggestion he makes is for children to write letters in support of funding for school breakfasts for low income students. They can write to elected officials or their own school principals. Berg says that where he lives he has seen children delivering breakfast baskets to classrooms.
When children help in a way that they perceive as real help, they learn much more about giving than when they try to do something that is not really appropriate, or even helpful.