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Time to teach kids about the joy of giving

By Sharon M. Smith

We know Christmas has arrived when we see Santa Claus in front of Wal-Mart ringing a bell, our children filling their Christmas lists with items they saw on commercials from a cable channel, and long lines at the department store where we have to stand to purchase our goodies. Our season continues as we falsify our cheery-cheeked friend to our kids, in hopes our children will not catch on to the lie of his reality, but the stronger message that our stout Santa friend proclaims: that of a spirit of giving.

Our kids might be learning how to give while they draw their pretty pictures to wrap up for a relative, collect their allowance money to save up on a nice gift for their siblings, or just use the money we give them to buy a small gift for everyone on their list. As we discover, it is easier to give to our family members than to others outside of our circle of family and friends. We can give cash to the homeless person who sits in front of the store begging for money as we toss in the coins in the cup, not sure how they will use their accumulated change. Or we can ask them what food they need and go in a buy it for them. One year as I walked into a grocery store, I offered to buy a homeless person a sandwich only to find he had disappeared by the time I came back out of the store. However we try and relay the message of giving to our children, my husband and I knew our children were still not catching on.

This month, the children’s program at our church was collecting canned goods to help other children who were hungry. I asked my 8t-year-old about the effort, and he replied that he was not going to be collecting cans this year because he just didn’t understand why the kids just didn’t ask their parents for some food. “Well, honey, the parents may not have enough money to buy food.”

“Well then why don’t they go out and get a job to make money?”

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I knew then we had to do something to teach him about others who are needy this season.

We already had it planned that my husband and I were going out one evening to feed the homeless with a small group of friends. There are many organizations out there that need our help to serve food at their shelter, but we were going out later in the evening and decided to pack up lunches to bring to the homeless sleeping on the streets that night. Our friends came over to our house with their sandwiches they had made at home and we set up our assembly, of sandwich, fruit and water, dropping them each in a plastic bag. We also brought along two cases of water and one blanket. At first we were not planning on bringing our two children (8 and 6), but after my son’s comment, we decided it was their day to come. (We only went to well-lit areas across from churches and near established shelters, and police stations and no alleys or dark areas. We also planned our route before we went out after dark. Always go in a group.)

Our first stop downtown was to a crowd sitting on newspapers on the cement playing dominos and eating Doritos. There were two women, one man, and a child, my guess, almost 2 years old. The baby was propped in the front of a beat-up two-seater stroller peering at the activities below her. She wore a thin jumper that came to her shins and had bare feet. She also had a cut on her upper lip. We walked by cheerily and offered the party some lunches, but they declined. We then offered our one blanket and they were all eager to accept it. We gave it to the women who appeared to be the mother of the child. We walked on and our lunches disappeared quickly and the waters were distributed in a flash. My kids were friendly and willingly handed out the bags of food and sang out “Merry Christmas!” as we left. Our bags of food and water went so fast and we knew the need for more was great. One year we had piled our trunk full of blankets, gloves, scarves, and hats and people came out of the woodworks to swipe winter items. As we were leaving we realized ultimately, how minuscule our contribution really was in the grand scheme of the homeless situation.

Going downtown to feed the homeless is one way to give to others, but there are many ways to teach our children about giving. One year our playgroup (group of ten eight-year olds, their siblings, and their parents who have been getting together at least once a month since the older kids were a year old) gathered at Ikea to gather household items to assist in stocking up items for apartments for families who were moving in off the streets. Many of the kids had saved, and they bought the items with their own money. We boxed up the items and one of the moms brought it over to an organization that she worked for that helped in the transition from street to home. Other years we have taken the kids to convalescent homes to sing Christmas carols and hand out homemade bread and cookies.

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These are just some of the ways we have tried to teach our children the spirit of giving and hoping that they latch onto the idea not only during this season, but throughout the year. And yet there are even more ways for our children to give, by using their money to help buy books for a needy school (donorschoose.org), or allocate money to a cause your child chooses (markmakers.org), supply a low-flow toilet for a needy family’s first home (habitat.org), help support such causes such as Hurricane Katrina relief (mercycorps.org), or contribute to clean water to children from across the world (unicefusa/survive.org).

So through our hustle and bustle, maybe we can help our children identify with the true meaning of Christmas and giving to others. This time of the year is our opportunity to teach our kids about those who are in need, from across the world to across the street.