THE BLOG

How to be a Holiday Hero

11/06/2013 01:20 pm ET

It's November now, the month of Thanksgiving, and it's also the month when our children start rehearsing seriously for their school holiday programs. Singing, dancing, holding signs; whatever it is they're doing, they're preparing to be "at their best" for their parents and their community.

When I was young, the Christmas Program was an all-day affair. We students got to leave our classes early so that we could go home, change into our holiday best and return in the evening for a bake sale (to raise money for the school) and for our performance. Our parents would drop us off in our classroom and then go find seats in the auditorium. About 45 minutes later, the show would begin. We would entertain ourselves in the classroom by playing simple games like Hangman (on the board) or Simon Says until someone would summon us for our moment on stage. We would file onto the risers as we had done in rehearsals the days before and face our parents and our community, who were very excited to see what our class had to offer on this special holiday occasion. All the parents were there. This was Big Time.

Today, the "holiday" program still offers the same opportunity for our children. The concept is similar, although the celebration is more diverse. After all, it was radical when Hannukah songs were introduced at my elementary school, but today schools spend a lot of time teaching our kids to embrace diversity with sensitivity and empathy. I find these new additions refreshing, and I note, ironically, that we, as parents, don't seem to be doing our part.

One big thing that has changed is that many parents today only seem to care about their child's performance. Typically, these days, after any class finishes their part of the program, a wave of parents stands up and leaves -- so that by the end of the program, the last performers (usually the older kids) are greeted by a much-emptier auditorium. This, I fear, is an unfortunate sign of our times.

People regularly ask me, "What's wrong with kids today? Why are they discourteous, why are they so self-involved?" I believe the answer lies partially in the parental behavior described above. Why should our children care about the other kids in their school if their parents don't? Why, in fact, should they care about anyone else if we parents are always prioritizing them over others, sometimes even over their teachers or coaches?

This isn't rocket science. I didn't have to study anything besides my own childhood and the emotion I felt when my children asked me after their performances why the audience was so empty. We parents need to teach our children to be sensitive to the feelings of others and to act in a manner consistent with those feelings. This isn't always easy. There are obligations to attend to, meals after the performance, grandmas in town and restless siblings, etc. But as we demonstrate our concern for the feelings of others, our children will begin to understand that they are not the center of the universe and that they, too, need to be aware of those around them.

Although it may seem like I'm counseling other parents to be "selfless," the truth is (from my experience) that teaching our children to behave well and respect others is very much in our own self-interest. By teaching our children to be conscious of the world around them, and by showing them how to be courteous, our lives actually become much easier. We don't have to spend time worrying about bad behavior or insensitivity toward others. We don't have to deal with a child that talks back, or corral our kids when we go out in public. Kids naturally accept and incorporate the positive values that we, their parents have portrayed. Ultimately, they actually realize that we are people whose feelings and opinions they should also care about, because, they are, after all, a part of a family and community.

So, there's a lot more at stake when you decide to bail in the middle of a school performance. When I wrote Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around, I listed "setting an example" as one of my key values. By showing our children that we care about the performances of other children -- even children to whom we have no direct connection -- we are teaching our kids that we respect other people in the world. When they're reminded that the world is bigger than they are, they gain perspective that allows them to feel and experience gratitude for the things and people around them. It's a lesson that will serve them their entire lives.

Yes, November is the month for gratitude, and I've written on this subject now because it's the time to start scheduling those Holiday Programs. Enjoy this family time and, if you can, try to enjoy the whole show.

Happy Thanksgiving.