Teaching Kids to Give During the Holidays
Making Time to Help: One Family's Story
If anyone could claim to be too busy to teach children the importance of helping others, it is Jo Ann H. of Clarkeville, Maryland. A mother of three, she works nine-and-a-half-hour days as a government computer specialist. Add to that a two-and-a-half-hour commute to and from her job in Washington, D.C. Yet, even with the extra demands of the holiday season, involving her children in charity work tops Jo Ann's must-do list.
"I grew up very poor, and often went without food," she says, recalling a bleak childhood. Jo Ann's mother died when she was three. When her negligent father threatened to put his children up for adoption, rather than be saddled with their care, Jo Ann's 12-year-old brother begged for the right to raise his siblings. The family remained intact, but destitute.
"The only time we had new clothes was when a relative gave us a box of hand-me-downs," Jo Ann says. "That instilled in me a need to help other people."
But convictions born in childhood brushed up against the responsibilities of family life that came in adulthood. Jo Ann and her husband discovered that while they lacked time to engage in extensive volunteering, their children lacked the experience of being in need.
"My children have everything," she admits. "We live in a brand-new, 3,000-square-foot house. I remember one time we saw a homeless man going through the trash downtown and my one of my kids laughed. I said, 'How can you laugh?' but then I realized they didn't understand it."
Although Jo Ann's work schedule made it impossible for her to commit the family to regularly scheduled volunteer efforts at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, she found weekend projects to do with her kids online at FamilyCares.org, a website that offers ideas and encouragement to parents interested in community service.
"We made shoeboxes full of toiletries, things like toothbrushes, shampoo, and small toys for families living in a dump overseas," she recalls. "And when we went to buy backpacks last fall, the kids also picked out backpacks to give to kids who didn't have any. I told them, 'Pick out the ones you would want for yourself.'"
The giving has made an impact on her kids, Jo Ann notices. Now, when she buys things, one or the other will ask, "Mom, did you buy that for poor people?"
This year Jo Ann and her daughter decided to let their hair grow long to aid a group called Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces for children with long-term medical hair loss. Jo Ann is happy to help, but also eagerly awaiting her next haircut.
"It's driving me crazy, it's getting so long," she laments. "But growing your hair to help someone - how much time does that take out of your busy day?"
Kids Get What They Give
Ninety-four percent of Americans believe "parents play a key role in getting children involved" in charity efforts, according to a new poll, The 2000 Cone/Roper Raising Charitable Children Survey. Yet 70 percent of parents admit their children are not involved in any charitable activities.
In the survey, parents cited time, family commitments, and concern about how their contributions will actually be used as reasons (or excuses?) for not doing more.
"There's lip service, but the pedal still doesn't hit the metal, so to speak," says Carleton Kendrick, family therapist. "The holidays are a chance for families to assess the notion of gratitude as a way of life."
As Kendrick sees it, giving children the chance to give to others - whether by raking leaves for an elderly neighbor, or stocking shelves at a local food pantry - is one of the best ways to build a strong sense of self.
"When you ask children or adults, 'when do you feel best?' " Kendrick says, "the answer almost always is 'when I give to others.' If that's what makes us feel good, why not do more of it?"
Six Ways to Get Going on (Guilt-Free!) Giving
1. Get honest. Okay, so your kids have never seen the inside of a homeless shelter, nor donated a single item for a charity toy drive. Talk about it! "You know, we really haven't made this a priority as a family, and that was a mistake, so now we're going to." Done. Now move on...
2. Remember the 2 Gs: gratitude and giving. "You can't have one without the other," says Kendrick. "They go hand in hand." Giving kids a chance to help others is how they learn to appreciate what they have (and children who appreciate what they have are not only happier people, they are less likely to whine and moan for every last item they see in the mall!)
3. Giving doesn't begin and end with charity work. Kendrick remembers his grandmother making cookies for the neighbors, which he would then distribute. Jo Ann H. (profiled above) helps her children keep a bird feeder filled throughout the winter. These small acts of kindness are forms of giving that send the same message to children as a trip to a soup kitchen ("Our family cares about others.")
4. Let kids decide how to give. You may think that helping the homeless or contributing to the fight against cancer are the most important ways to make a difference. Your five-year-old may want to donate more money to the zoo so that the lions will have a bigger supper. The type of giving matters less than the opportunity to empower kids, to let them "own" the act of giving.
5. Be concrete. Dropping coins into a collection box can indeed make a difference, but most young children, rooted in concrete thinking, can't understand where the money goes beyond the pail. "Take as many steps into the act of giving as you can," advises Kendrick. In other words, although it's easier for you to write a check, it's easier for kids to "see" what they're doing when they buy items to donate with you, then deliver them to a food bank, and put them directly on the shelves.
6. Give non-material gifts.Making donations is a wonderful way to give, but children can make a valuable contribution just by spending time talking with an elderly neighbor. Make sure they understand the value of "gifts of time" by asking questions like, "Which do you think meant more, the groceries we delivered today or the nice time we had talking with the woman who needed the food?" As Kendrick sees it, those follow-up chats are an "emotional bookmark." By marking the moment and talking about it with kids, he says, "you're engraving family currency. Your kid's picture is on the currency. And you're giving them a chance to spend it, to give themselves away."
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