Monday, 10 December 2012

Giving back: teaching kids about charity

It's that time of year when the spirit of the season reminds us to give some of what we have to those who don't have as much. It should probably be a year-round thing, but for most of us it's not. At Christmas, though, it's much harder to think of families living in shelters, of mothers unable to feed their children, of teenagers sleeping on the streets and kids who will be lucky to have a hot meal on Christmas Day, let alone a gift to open.

It always puts things in perspective for me when late at night on Christmas Eve my husband and I are sitting on the floor in our warm, cozy house, full from a big Christmas Eve dinner but nibbling at a plate of homemade shortbread and sipping coffee with Baileys (more Baileys than coffee, if I'm being perfectly honest), lit by the warm glow of the twinkly lights on the Christmas tree, surrounded by piles and piles of gifts and colourful paper and foil and ribbon and gift tags, wrapping dozens and dozens of presents to put under the tree for our kids after a frenzy of last-minute shopping when we cheerfully drop a sum of money that could keep a less fortunate family living for a month.

So, though by that point I've always purchased and dropped off a few toys for various toy drives around town, sorted, laundered, and folded bags and bags of the kids' outgrown clothes to drop off at the local women's shelter, and boxed endless cans of non-perishables for the school donation tree, guilt usually sets in right around Christmas when I realize just how much we have compared to some people. I feel like we should be doing more - but even more, I feel like we should be teaching the children more about giving.

I don't mean to imply that they are selfish little people. They get just as excited about the gift-giving part of Christmas as the gift-getting. But they are a little spoiled. And though I want to give them everything in the world and I want them to grow up with everything they could possibly want or need, I don't want them to grow up feeling entitled or without an understanding of how fortunate they are and how many people in the world are so much less fortunate.

It's hard to know where to begin, to decide what the appropriate amount of reality is to expose the kids to and at what age it's appropriate to begin. My husband and I have discussed the possibility of volunteering as a family at a soup kitchen. I love the idea of that, but I feel like at six and eight years old they might still be too young for that - a little too much reality for my sheltered little boys.

For the last few years we've had the kids go through their toys at the beginning of Christmas vacation and pick out the ones they are willing to give away to those less fortunate. It's like pulling teeth getting them to part with anything, but it's not the idea of giving their toys to kids who don't have any that they have a problem with - it's the idea of having to actually get rid of any of their own, despite the fact that they may not have played with them in a year or more. Though we have dozens and dozens of new toys coming in the house Christmas Day, we're lucky if four or five "gently used" ones make it to the local women and children's shelter.

They do help me pick out the new toys and cans of non-perishables to drop off for the toy and food drives at their school and our community centre. We take advantage of the Boxing Day sales to buy a few blankets and drop them off at the shelter. I think they're beginning to understand that part of life is not just working to have what you want, but helping those who have not.

This year, we are donating baskets of basics to an organization that gifts them to women leaving shelters and beginning a new life with their children. The children have been very involved in the process of assembling the baskets, and I think they understand that for some people, even the very basic necessities of home life - blankets, soap, shampoo, frying pans, dishes and glasses - are out of reach without some help. It has put into perspective for them that they are very lucky to be able to put Lego sets and Wii games on their wish lists rather than warm coats for winter and a pillow to sleep on.

I love to spoil our kids at Christmas as much as we possibly can - but I don't want them to grow up spoiled. I hope that exposing them to the reality that not everyone has as much as they do and teaching them about giving some of what they have to those less fortunate will help them to grow up to be good little people, and I think that the holiday season, when everything is infused with a little extra warmth and love and big-heartedness, is the best time to emphasize that lesson.

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