NEW YORK (AP) — As the daughter of a minister, Jennifer James traveled frequently while her family served the less fortunate, from the rural heartland to the inner city. A lot of the time, she went without as a kid.
"My earliest memories are of working among the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, dipping ice cream for drunks," she said. "I learned a lot and I was a better person for it, but there was a lot of pain along the way."
In her zeal to spare her own three kids, the 44-year-old mom in Oklahoma City, Okla., has given them a world she didn't know — braces on their teeth and cushy furniture for their rooms, fancy computers and private schooling. But now, at 14, 6 and 4, she realizes something is missing.
"Pretty soon it's like the kids just expect it and think you're giving so much because they're just that fantastic and not because you're making sacrifices," James said. "They have no paradigm for sacrifice. Now I'm trying to wind the skein of yarn back up and it's not easy."
Call it entitled child syndrome, the chronic gimmes or just plain spoiled. The lament is a familiar one for many well-meaning parents year round but intensifies at the holidays, especially among older kids who crank up gift demands but can't be coaxed off the couch to give back.
Can you force a teen to lose all the push back in favor of a little charity?
"Parents need to get into the WHY behind why teens are not wanting to give," said Tammy Gold, a parenting coach in Short Hills, N.J.
Is it selfishness never outgrown or volunteer fatigue after years of forced participation? Did you forget to "model" charity at home, or at least check in to figure out whether your own good deeds were rubbing off? Does your teen anticipate a material reward in return, or a bribe beforehand?
It may be one or all of the above, but Gold and other experts urge parents not to give up — or give in to foreboding that selfish teen equals grown-up sociopath.
It could be your reluctant volunteer just hasn't found the right cause or has been mismatched in the past, said dad David Levinson, a Hollywood screenwriter who founded the Los Angeles community service organization Big Sunday (Bigsunday.org).
"Everyone, even the youngest kids, has something that speaks to them, whether it's homelessness, literacy, the environment, seniors, veterans, AIDS, animals, children," he said. "At the same time, everyone has things that don't speak to them, scare them, or turn them off. For me, it's cats. For others it might be, say, homeless people. And, while they might be embarrassed to have that reaction, that's OK."
If your teen has no interest in cooking, forget the food kitchen as a way to wake up your sleeping giver. If he's not a people person, working closely with the homeless or the infirm might bring out the shy and awkward in him instead.
"Personally, I hate paperwork, and I was stunned to discover that some people actually enjoy it and are good at it," Levinson said.
He suggests projects that have a clear beginning, middle and an end, like cleaning up a single block or repainting a room at a shelter rather than pitching in on long-term problems with intangible solutions.
No matter how much nudging, a demand to participate isn't the way to go.
"If you persist there's a reasonable chance that they might actually do it, but there also is a chance that they won't," said Suffield, Conn., psychologist Anthony Wolf, who wrote a guide for parenting teens, "I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up."
Wolf added: "Have in your head, 'Well, what happens if I don't get them to do it? Should I punish them?' That's a singularly terrible idea."
Encourage teens to look for volunteer opportunities on their own, said Donna Henderson, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University. And remember, they're not babies anymore. "Because teens have more capacity for action, they can do more," she said.
Disaster fatigue touches adults and kids alike, but parents should recognize and build on natural moments of empathy, said Michel Tvedt, the teen engagement expert for the aid group World Vision.
"Begin to give them a voice in family giving," she said. "Let your teen know you would like to give a charitable gift as a family but that you'd love to let them be the final decision maker."
As the holidays draw closer, Tvedt said, suggest that teens give loved ones charitable gifts instead of material gifts. "Teens will not respond well to guilt," she said, and should be encouraged to "find their own identity as givers."
Linda Cohen, whose blog 1000mitzvahs.org is loaded with suggested acts of kindness, unknowingly stumbled on that strategy with her 13-year-old daughter.
She felt deflated as a charitable-minded mom when she couldn't get her own teen to decide on a mitzvah project last summer, ahead of her bat mitzvah. The push back, she said, was startling, until they found just the right project. The teen decided to collect gift cards with money left over on them to cash in and benefit an organization that provides art supplies to hospitalized kids.
Is she eager? "That might be a bit of a stretch," mom said, "but at least she thinks the project is worthy of some of her time and attention. She's 13, which means we needed to find something that speaks to her at this age."
Wolf said parents shouldn't lose sight of the end game if they fail to budge an intransigent teen.
"Whether they do or don't participate," he said, "the big picture is: 'What I really care about is that they basically become a good person.'"
- Jennifer James