This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

How Not to Keep Up with the Joneses

How can we instill in our children an appreciation for what they already have — especially when the people around them seem to have just about everything?  Here’s our family’s holiday tip…

This fall, my two children moved from a warm and caring New York City public school where a large percentage of the students live at or near the poverty level to a progressive private school comprised of many families in (or close to) that much-scrutinized 1%, to use the Occupy Wall Street parlance.

What has the change meant for the kids on a day to day level?

One of the most obvious things is that they have come face-to-face with the stark reality of America’s income inequality.  For them, this is most apparent in the size of their friends’ homes.  While many of their old playmates live in cramped apartments in government subsidized housing, a sizable number of their new friends live in cavernous lofts and single-family townhouses.  As is human nature for children and adults alike, my kids are prone to comparing what our family has to what they perceive is bigger and better.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lecturing them about the detriment of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the false trappings of materialism, but that tends to fall on deaf ears.  I also point out endless examples of good people really struggling, including the families who experienced massive loss during our recent storms here in the Northeast.

They grasp this, having seen a lot of this damage with their own eyes.  They even volunteered setting up cots at a local shelter during tropical storm Irene.  But nothing helped to cement an appreciation for what we have better than a simple holiday coin collection box from a nearby branch of Habitat for Humanity.

What puts this box right up there with the ubiquitous Trick or Treat for UNICEF is that children are asked to literally count the things they have to appreciate right in their own homes.  A recent weekend evening found the kids excitedly tearing around the apartment, dropping coins into the box in response to questions such as:

  • For each room in your home, deposit 10 cents.  Talk about what it would be like to live in a one room house.
  • For each electrical outlet in your house, deposit 3 cents.  (We have 31, not counting the outlets hidden behind bookcases and sofas.  Who knew?)
  • If you have a pantry to store extra food, be thankful and deposit 25 cents.  Many families live day to day for meals.

And the question that got my youngest reaching deeper into his own allowance money:

  • What more would you sacrifice to give others a more abundant life?

You can see the full 30-day giving calendar here:  Holiday Giving Calendar (We cheated by doing it all at once.)

The Habitat for Humanity in Paterson, NJ will use the cash collected this season for new, affordable homes.  What’s more, we can feel good that the houses will be energy efficient and economical for families to maintain in the long-term.

Has this project cured my children of the tendency to want more and more?  No, of course not. But the act of pausing to look at the everyday conveniences we take for granted made for a unique introspective exercise in appreciation.  Best of all, it linked this new understanding with actual holiday giving.

And for these things, this parent is enormously grateful.

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