(Editor’s Note: A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010.)
On the last day of her family’s spring break, Sharon Dunski Vermont confronted an ugly truth: Her tween-aged daughters were close to becoming spoiled brats. They had spent the day out with friends and decided to get ice cream. Vermont told them in the car that they would be getting child-sized scoops. Her older daughter said that wasn’t fair. In the store, she got more irate and had a meltdown.
"As she was having the fit I was mortified," Vermont said. To her, the fit was about something bigger. It was about the fact that her children, who got most of the things they asked for, did not appreciate what their parents did for them and everything they had.
"This was a growing theme in our family: more, bigger, better, more clothes, more electronics," she said. "This fit, which really was not about ice cream, was the straw that broke the camel's back."
She took an innovative approach to address the issue.
“If I was going to rectify this, then grounding was not going to be effective,” she said. “I was going to have to give them a different experience if I really wanted to instill gratitude.” She decided that since the incident happened in a type of restaurant, they would no longer eat at restaurants until they met 30 people they had not met before and had given them food instead of getting food.
Her younger daughter responded to the idea by saying, "That's not fair. I wasn't the one who had the meltdown." Her older daughter said, "You're right. I think I'll learn a lot, and I shouldn't have done it."
They visited the local fire department with bags of nonperishable meals: spaghetti, pasta sauce, canned fruits and canned vegetables and boxes of brownies in blue gift bags. The firefighters were so appreciative. They sat with them for an hour and a half and told them about how they help the community.
They repeated the experiment with other people in their community.
Vermont, 41, said when they got their dog groomed, they told the groomer about their project and asked about her life story. The groomer told them she was 23 years old, and her 1-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was having trouble paying the bills and buying food. At that point, Vermont said to her kids: So, how important was that ice cream?
And they started getting it.
They also approached the woman who cuts their hair. “I went in and said: My daughter had a meltdown over ice cream because she wanted more. And so, I decided my children needed to meet people they didn't know and learn about their lives, so they can develop an appreciation for other people in their community as well as their own lives.” The hairdresser responded, "I always ask clients about them; no one asks about me." She was a single mom, divorced, raising three kids on her own. And that day was her daughter's birthday, and she was at work.
The entire project took almost five months. They did not buy any food at any restaurant during that time, except once on a daughter’s birthday.
The kids were introduced to some very grown-up topics: a teen mom who gave up her baby for adoption, a lesbian who was not accepted by her family, issues of poverty and illness. They heard from a Holocaust survivor, a Bosnian war survivor and a recovering drug addict. “It really helped them understand a lot of lessons I try to teach them to hear it from someone else who has lived through it,” Vermont said.
She also noticed changes in her kids’ behavior.
“Someone stole our younger daughter's scooter from our front lawn,” she said. Her older daughter called her grandparents and said, "For my birthday can you get a scooter for (my sister) as my present because she lost hers and is really upset?" Before, their thinking always was, “What am I getting for my birthday?” They seem much more compassionate now.
For Hanukkah, Vermont gave them a couple of CDs and DVDs, and her daughters were fine with that. They’ve also been doing a lot of shopping since the ice cream incident at Goodwill.
“I didn't think that would go over well, but they are totally fine with it,” she said. The experiment seems to have paid off.
“If I had grounded her, she would have forgotten about it in a month, but this had an impact on all of us, and we will never forget it,” Vermont said.