“Mom, what do you want for Christmas?” he asked.
“A goat,” I replied.
My six-year-old son scrunched his eyes and mouth in confused surprise. Mom wants a goat? Not new slippers, chocolate, or a cookbook?
I laughed, “Not for me, silly. I want to give a goat to another family. Remember the gift catalog I showed you?” I slid it across the table towards him. “Let’s pick some gifts out for children who are hungry today.”
He nodded, and as he flipped through the pages, we giggled at the idea of finding a goat under our Christmas tree.
My children are like most children. When confronted with a real person in real need, children’s hearts move immediately to help. They give generously and without reservation. But when they no longer see the need, they forget all about it. But are children really so different from adults? We too see catastrophes and are moved to help right away. But as our attention shifts to the Next Big Thing the urgency to relieve someone else’s suffering fades. Do you think about the people who lost everything in the tornadoes in May? What about last year in Hurricane Sandy? I have to confess – I forget.
When we recognized this about ourselves, my husband and I decided we would not longer relegate our giving to whim and impulse. We knew we must make a conscious choice to give and to teach our children to share or we wouldn’t do it. We are wealthy compared to most, glutted with piles of paper, toys, electronics, more paper, more toys, broken electronics we don’t know how to dispose of, and still more paper. We do not need to collect any more stuff; we need to share what we already have.
Two years ago, we introduced our children to their first gift catalog. They examined and circled gifts with the same excitement I saw on Black Friday as they pored over sale papers. We talk about how many children don’t have food in their pantry or a bed of their own, let alone the latest toy. We watch a video so they can see how one of these special gifts can change a child’s life. In those moments, my children see how helping another child with basics like food and water is much more important than pursuing the latest release from Apple or Nintendo.
Children are concrete and visual. Flipping through pages of photos and talking about how a goat or set of chickens or seeds or fish nets helps them grasp giving in a way that mailing a check cannot. It also allows them to ask questions that show us parents where their hearts are and just how much they understand.
Lest you think we’re some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, our kids are still kids. Our youngest boy was just 3 the first year we gave a sheep. He drove us crazy for the next month, pestering us about where the sheep was that we ordered. My daughter refuses to give any animals that might be eaten for meat, so she reads every detail and selects her gift with extreme care. In fact, we have trouble agreeing on a single animal to give as a family.
Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday, and our family will begin this year’s negotiations over Feed the Children’s new gift catalog. Most likely, we will choose a variety of items to satisfy everyone in our family, and we will choose a few gifts to give in honor of another family member, in lieu of more unnecessary stuff.
How will you observe Giving Tuesday? And how do you (or did you) teach the children in your life about the joy of giving? Please share your ideas in the comments.
Joy Bennett is Director for Social Engagement at Feed the Children.