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How to unspoil your kids

Richard Eyre with son Talmadge in a leper colony in India.
Richard Eyre with son Talmadge in a leper colony in India.
Provided by Richard Eyre

When we published “The Entitlement Trap” a couple of years ago, the whole book was intended to help parents stop spoiling and entitling their children. But the question we always get from parents is something like this: “Isn’t there a quick fix — a way to instantly get kids to feel grateful and motivated and to stop thinking they should have everything they want without working for it?”

Well, actually, believe it or not, there is a kind of quick fix, and it involves taking kids on a “humanitarian expedition” where they are entirely without conveniences, gadgets and devices, and where they work hard to build a school or a clinic or an irrigation system for the poorest of the poor in a Third World location.

Kids as young as 10 or 12 can go on these expeditions, and though they may not love it on day one, by the end of a week they are transformed, mightily aware of how blessed they are and deeply empathetic with the plight of kids who basically have nothing. They come home more motivated and far less demanding than when they left — and with a more realistic perspective about the world they live in.

We got hooked on these “expeditions” one Christmastime many years ago. As the season approached, we were not looking forward to yet another year of materialism and excess and once again trying to satisfy every kid with all the toys and gadgets he or she wanted. And to be honest, we were just fed up with the commercialism of Christmas in general and the business and hassle of it all.

We knew there was an expedition to Bolivia during the holidays, to provide and install a water pipe system to a remote village where people had to walk two miles to get water. We asked our kids if they would trade their usual Christmas lists for an adventure in the Andes. Unaware of how arduous it would be, they went for it.

On Christmas morning, instead of waking up to the presents and the tree, we were picked up by a limo driven by Santa and one of his elves and transported to the airport. By that evening, we were sleeping in tents and on the floor of a tiny school at 14,000 feet on Bolivia’s altiplano.

For the next five days, we all dug trenches and laid pipe, shoulder to shoulder with Bolivian Indian families. It was difficult, but when we finally finished and when the spigot was turned on in the center of the village and water actually flowed out, there was a kind of joy in our kids’ faces that we had rarely seen.

Their eyes had been opened, not only to the poverty and hardship that so many people live in, but to the enormous blessings and privileges of their own lives. The quick fix lasted for a few months, and when it started to wane and the entitlement mentality started to return, we booked another expedition.

I guess you could say we got hooked. We did humanitarian work as a family in Kenya, Romania, India and in central Mexico, among other places, and it always had the same beneficial effect on our children. The cost, by the way, was not as great as one might guess. We used frequent flier miles to defray airfares, and the on-the-ground costs were almost nil since we stayed in primitive villages. Bottom line: each trip cost less than a trip to Disney World.

Now of course you don’t need to go overseas or even catch a plane to give service or to expose kids to poverty and need. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters always need help, and kids can be involved in planning, feeding, serving and donating. Parents can set the tone, not so much of pity but of mutual humanity and the sense of “There, but by the grace of God go I.”

Utah and Arizona, as it turns out, are hotbeds of these types of humanitarian expedition organizations, and for what it's worth, our four favorites, each of which we have been associated with, are,, and

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at or