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When Parents Are Naughty, Children Aren't Nice (Or: Helping Those In Need Is an Honor, Not a Lesson)

12/09/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

You suspect that your child does not fully appreciate her slender frame, so you bring her to look around at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. You want her to have a lasting "there but the grace of God go I" moment, and you think that absorbing the roomful of fatties will do that for her.

"Disgusting! Insensitive! Ineffective! Of course not!" we all shout together.

Yet that's essentially what I heard suggested, repeatedly, on an A.M. talk show this morning. Suggestions that would have sounded just fine to me even a few years ago land very differently from where I now sit, working at Bethesda Cares, a homeless outreach program; it is the latter perspective that I want to share with you now.

Although I missed the beginning of the call, the subject was a marital dispute over how a couple should handle what they perceived to be their children's lack of gratitude for all that they have in their lives. The wife was the caller: "I don't know. My husband and I both think the kids don't appreciate how hard we work for all that we have, they want more stuff all the time, they don't even take care of what they do have. So my husband thinks we should just not give them any Christmas presents this year, so maybe they can think about what they do have. But I think that's cruel," the caller concluded.

"Ooh, tough question. Let's get our listeners in on this," said the host.

"Good for you!" yelled one caller. "Your husband's got that right," cried another. "They need to learn, and that's a lesson they'll never forget!" The vocal applause rolled on. Then came the suggestions: "Make 'em give away half of what they own to someone needy!" "Don't give them anything on Christmas Day, and do make them work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. They need to see what it's like to have nothing."

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that, while I found the whole conversation simplistic and self-congratulatory, it is the last caller that got me to my keyboard. But let me take my disagreements in turn:

First, as a mother of three, I can state with some assurance that if your child is a brat, you as a parent have not toed the line year-round. That buck stops with you. Lessons of gratitude and the understanding of where one's needs fit into life's continuum are taught through the countless small moments comprising a lifetime: Hand-write that thank-you note to Grandma; no, a text won't do. Please offer to shovel the snow for Mrs. O'Leary, and no, don't ask to be paid. I'd appreciate your taking out the garbage out when you see it's full, don't wait for me to ask.

I think that a one-time grand gesture of denying Christmas presents might guarantee a painful memory, but that memory will more likely be a confused one about parental cruelty, not a poignant one about appreciation of material goods.

Parenting is not about the very few big moments, it's about the innumerable tiny ones.

Second, at Bethesda Cares, we run a business, and our business is helping homeless people to find homes, dignity and life's basic necessities. While we rely enormously on our devoted (cherished) cadre of volunteers, our mission is not to make sure that Johnny Learns a Lesson. Our volunteers -- even the teens -- work with us and with our clients because they believe in our mission, not because their parents made them. Their caring shows. A lack of it would, too, and alienating our often already disenfranchised clients is pretty much the polar opposite of our goal.

I know that sounds harsh. And before I worked in this field, I might well have been the caller who cavalierly suggests "help out in a soup kitchen!" But the reality is that our clients desperately need people around them whom they can learn to trust, who are there because they genuinely want to serve. The presence of a teen forced to help against his will is not in the best interest of our clients.

Third, spending time with our clients is not on par with a museum outing. When I worked at a food bank, one well-meaning teacher famously called and asked whether her class could come in "to see the hungry." "See The Hungry." Like, a discreet group that exists as such, and can be ogled for the viewer's edification.

Those who are hungry, those who are living unsheltered, those who desperately need what so many of us certainly do take for granted, are not animals in a zoo from which we all can learn. They are human beings who need our attention, resources and support.

Which brings me to my final point.

As I have said before: there is no "us." There is no "them." Please. Don't tell your children that "if you eat too much, you'll look like him," or "if you had no stuff, you'd live like her." A + B does not equal C. Life is nuanced, and we are all vulnerable.