Like many parents, we always worry that our kids are living in a bubble — that they do not fully appreciate their blessings or understand how so much of the world has so little.
One good definition of "being spoiled" is to take everything for granted, and that is where today's kids often are.
Years ago we did about the closest thing we have ever done to a "quick fix." Instead of another typical "gimme, gimme" Christmas, we took the kids to the high and desolate Altiplano of Bolivia.
It was a humanitarian "expedition" sponsored by a group called Choice Humanitarian. We worked shoulder to shoulder with Bolivian Indians to pipe water from a small well some distance away to the middle of a town. It changed their lives forever — and it changed our kids as well.
After one long week of hard work — no cellphones, no TV or computers (in fact, no electricity) — and sleeping on the floor of a hut or the village schoolhouse and living the way a billion and a half people in Third World countries live, our kids were changed in two profound ways:
1. They had a new appreciation for the ease and abundance and opportunity of their own lives.
2. They had a newfound empathy and love for their new Bolivian friends, who had none of the above.
The trip actually didn't cost much more than a typical Christmas at home, and less than a trip to Disneyland. (Humanitarian expeditions are surprisingly cheap because group airfares are a bargain and once you arrive, there are hardly any costs at all, since you sleep on the ground and eat village food.)
We were addicted!
Over the years, we did other service expeditions to Ethiopia, to Kenya, to India, to Romania and three times to Mexico. It became our family's favorite "vacation" (and about our only vacations). Each time we returned exhausted and dirty but we loved the opportunity of poking our finger in our kids' "bubble" and seeing them sprayed with a dose of what the world is really like.
These trips had real and lasting impact on our kids, who felt they had more perspective on the real world, more gratitude for their own comparatively bounteous blessings and more genuine concern for those who have so little.
One expedition to Mexico included a day of "shadowing" a person from the village who was close to your own age for the day. We did what they did.
After sitting with a Mexican friend who was also 15 and helping make tortillas all morning, our daughter became wonderfully grateful for the privilege she had of going to school every morning.
By the end of each expedition, the kids were always amazed that their new friends with whom they had worked, played and danced were, in most cases, genuinely happy, even though they lived in abject poverty.
On some of the trips, we did "something fun and recreational" after the village project of building a school or a clinic or a cistern. We felt like once the kids had worked hard for a week, they deserved a break. We climbed Kilimanjaro after the Kenya village expedition and took a safari after the Ethiopia experience. We visited Machu Picchu after the Bolivia adventure.
But here's the amazing thing: On the way home, when we would ask the kids what they liked best, the village work project or the fun activity, they always said "the village."
What they liked was serving, helping and seeing the lives of very poor people become just a little bit better.
One time, on the plane ride home from an expedition to Mexico, I asked 8-year-old Saydi what she had learned on the trip. With a sparkle in her eye and wisdom in her tone, she said, "I learned that you don't have to have shoes to be happy."
There are some great nonprofit groups that operate locally and specialize in sending families on well-organized humanitarian expeditions. Some that we have personally had great experiences with are choicehumanitarian.org, ascendalliance.org, risingstaroutreach.org, hopearising.org and careforlife.org. (There are probably many others as well, but these are the five we know best.)
But while it is surprisingly affordable to do some of these "foreign" humanitarian trips, particularly the ones to Mexico, you don't have to leave home to have a beneficial family experience of serving and cultural exchange.
Local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, family service centers, women's shelters, elderly homes and homes for the disabled always need volunteers. To dive right in with your kids can provide many of the same perspective- and empathy-giving opportunities that the more extensive international trips offer.
The Eyres' next book is "The Entitlement Trap: How to rescue your child with a new family system of choosing, earning, and ownership" (see www.EntitlementTrap.com). Richard and Linda are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com or www.valuesparenting.com.