- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

“Actions speak louder than words,” the adage goes.

That certainly holds true when it comes to teaching children values life in general, and the holidays in particular, says Susan Linn, director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which just released a guide to having a commercial-free holiday season (www.commercialfreechildhood.org).

“As adults, our feelings about the holidays are formed in childhood,” Ms. Linn says. “Which is why it’s so important for parents to build altruism into the holidays.”

Instead of just reading about altruism or writing a check, however, Ms. Linn recommends putting in some sweat equity together with the children.

Which is exactly what the Nislick family from Boston did leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. The family — two parents, three children and a cousin — were visiting the District for a long weekend along with their grandparents from New York.

Instead of just visiting the city’s many famous monuments and museums, they decided to put in a few hours of volunteer work at the Washington District of Columbia Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) where hundreds of volunteers were preparing 10,000 side dishes for the city’s poor on the eve of Thanksgiving.

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Dressed in hairnets and white aprons, the family was crumbling bread, dicing celery and weeping over onions to go into their assigned dish: stuffing.

“We volunteer as a family several times a year as part of tzedakah,” says Mara Nislick, while giving her son and nephew some tips on onion-cutting techniques. Tzedakah is a religious obligation to do charity work.

“So, they’re used to volunteering and they enjoy it,” Ms. Nislick says. “They know they can make a difference in the life of someone less fortunate.”

Asked whether they’re having fun, both Joshua Nislick, 14, and his cousin Jonah Schumer, 14, nod with eyes made teary from those onions.

Let’s face it, though, do you know any children who would rather give than receive at the holiday season?

“First off, it’s not about either or. There’s room for both,” Ms. Linn says. “[Secondly], children definitely take pleasure in giving.”

Particularly when they start school, Ms. Linn says, and they begin becoming aware of the world around them and the fact that there are people, even in their own communities, without access to food or a permanent home.

“They realize that by giving they can make a difference,” says Ms. Linn, author of the recently published “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.”

That’s satisfying for anyone and everyone — no matter their age, she adds.

But it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide the opportunity and tradition of giving, she says. This may be a little more time-consuming and complicated than just making an online holiday gift purchase, but then again, she says: “Most of the things that we do that are worthwhile take effort.”

In the end, she says, parents have the power to create lifelong habits and traditions for the holidays — from volunteering to writing thank-you notes to baking cookies.

Those lifelong holiday attitudes and habits of giving seem well on their way with Silver Spring second-grader Luke Mitchell, who also volunteered at DCJCC with his family on Thanksgiving eve.

After the towheaded 7-year-old had spent two hours preparing green-bean casserole with his family, rather than asking to play video games or whining about the work, he asked his dad, Larry Mitchell: “Can we do sweet potatoes now?”

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