Our parents taught us to open our mouths to say thank you and now that we’re parents ourselves, society has taught us to open our wallets to do the same. Yes, it’s that time of year again: the season of the ask. However, I don’t know about you, but I just opened my wallet and heard the far-off sound of crickets chirping. I’ll be purchasing few indulgences at Heifer International this year to weigh against the year’s sins. More importantly, though, I’m starting to wonder if the yearly giving glut is perhaps just a little artificial — that maybe writing a check to gratitude is the equivalent of buying Disney princess memorabilia at Christmastime to demonstrate unconditional parental love: in other words a thin excuse for something that’s better lived every day than once a year.
And so I followed up on an email thread my wife forwarded me describing a little group here in Boulder, Colorado, trying to make gratitude the norm instead of the exception. If you’re looking for a big, splashy story about saving Thanksgiving, click elsewhere. But if you want something grassroots you can do this holiday season to help your kids experience un-canned giving, by all means read on.
“I feel like even as we connect online, we disconnect in the real world and I see the sense of community where we live slipping away,” says Sarah Stith, founder of the group Little Heroes. “People think we’re too busy or too broke to make a difference, but we forget that you can see your neighbor out in the rain getting laundry off the line and you can go help.”
To Stith, the reason we forget to demonstrate gratitude is it’s somehow slipped from the cultural norm. “As adults, you do what you grew up with,” she says, “and by growing up with gratitude, when our kids are adults, it won’t be stepping out of their box.”
About six months ago, Stith happened to be chatting with a handful of moms who felt the same way. Like a book club, they started the group Little Heroes to brainstorm and then complete a monthly service project. “This summer there were a ton of wildfires in Colorado,” she says, “and so the kids thought it would be nice to show our gratitude to the firefighters by bringing baked goods to the firehouse.” Each family in Stith’s group baked what they were able, then the families got together to package and deliver the treats. This fall, Stith’s four year old daughter realized that as the weather changed people could be cold. “So for less than $5 I picked up cloth scraps and we worked together to make blankets for Project Linus,” she says.
There are three keys to a successful group, Stith says: consistency, kid-chosen activities, and parents working alongside kids to complete them. As much as the product, giving back is about the process.
“I really think that giving back is something we all yearn for — look at all the things that go viral on Facebook that have to do with the kindness of strangers,” Stith says (for example, THIS). “But my husband is a grad student and so we were waiting around for the opportunity to give. Unfortunately, waiting until we have money might be waiting until it’s too late to seem ‘normal’ to my daughter. It gets to a point when you just gotta do something.”
Stith’s family moved a year ago from Brooklyn. “And one morning after Hurricane Sandy I came downstairs and found my daughter at the kitchen table. She’d written a note to her baby friend in the old neighborhood. She wanted to know what we were going to do to help,” Stith says. The feeling is catching — from the initial handful of moms, Little Heroes in Boulder has grown to a group of over 50 families that brainstorm, plan and carry out community service projects ranging from senior center and Humane Society visits to volunteering at the community food share.
Though giving back may be foreign to your schedule, do it enough and it can become your kids’ new normal. “It just becomes what you do,” Stith says. She’s starting small. Will you join her?