The question in my title is one we don’t hear very often from children. When kids return to school after the holidays and happily meet one another on the playground, they ask: “What did you get for Christmas?”
To be sure, everything in our culture prepares them for such an inquiry and justifies it. The minute the Thanksgiving turkey is off the table, children are bombarded with enticements of gifts they hope for or expect. Santa Claus, that ubiquitous giver of gifts, can wipe out the religious significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Furthermore, most of us are not above using Santa’s forthcoming visit as a disciplinary technique: “If you act that way, Santa probably won’t bring you any toys.” Indeed, there’s something very powerful in the folklore of that “naughty and nice” list.
No one wants to take the anticipation, excitement and joy out of this season for children. Most of us remember it as a very happy time, even if we didn’t get everything on our list. The lights, the decorations in houses and yards, the special cookies and other foods, and the visits from distant family members are all very stimulating and should be enjoyed to the fullest by children and adults alike. But this special time also provides us a perfect opportunity for us to instill values in our children.
A Time to Teach
The holiday season is an ideal time to help children begin to understand the flipside of getting—giving. Although taking young children along when you shop may slow you down, it gets them to participate in the act of giving. “Do you think Grandma will like this?” “What shall we get for your teacher?” Wrapping the gifts and applying labels keeps children involved. At the same time, you can offer your child a first lesson in economics. For example, a 4-year-old might suggest buying a new car for his teacher because he has heard her complain about hers. You could respond, “No, we can’t do that because cars cost too much money. We need to think of something that doesn’t cost so much.”
Being included in the gift selection is still a step away from giving from one’s own resources—true giving, we might say. That happens when children give up something of true value to themselves. We saw instances of this after Hurricane Katrina, when children gave up a prized teddy bear or doll to youngsters who had lost all their toys in the disaster. Children as young as 3 or 4 will do this, but their parents need to provide an example of what they hope their children will do. They have to find opportunities for such giving and put the child in a position to be the giver rather than the receiver.
There are many charities established to help children, and these have particular appeal for the young. For example, organizations that serve children with disabilities generally feature pictures of young children who clearly need help. As many of the organizations deal with children all over the globe, encouraging children to give to them will help them understand that there’s a world beyond their immediate view.
I always thought the Halloween fund-raising drives for UNICEF helped accomplish this. I did that with my children until they thought they were too big. Using the little orange cardboard boxes, they carefully collected change while trick or treating then counted how much money they had accumulated and proudly delivered it to the local committee. But it seems that this custom has disappeared. I know I haven’t had such a request from a child in many years. Now it’s all about how much candy each trick or treater can accumulate.
Where Should the Money Come From?
When we talk about encouraging children to show as much concern for giving as for getting, we have to ask: “Where should the money come from to buy the gift?” I think that most of us simply allocate a certain portion of the family gift money and give that to the children to use for buying their gifts (supervised by you, of course). That is all I ever did. But recently I learned of a much better strategy, and I want to share it with you.
While I was shopping at a local bookstore, I ran into a prominent surgeon with one of her two young daughters. In her hand the little girl clutched a few bills with which she planned to buy a book. Just making conversation, I asked if the money had been a gift. After telling me that it was the child’s own money, my friend explained her family’s allowance system.
Both girls receive an allowance of $5 a week. Of that amount, they must give 50 cents to charity and save 50 cents, which must be used for gifts. With the remainder of the allowance they buy most of their toys, snacks, movie tickets and other treats.
I was so taken with that arrangement that I asked her permission to describe it in this article. The allowance amount may seem high for many families, but it is the proportions that matter: 20 percent of what the child receives must be shared with someone else. I just wish I had thought of that arrangement when my children were little.
I am always trying to instill the value of giving in my grandchildren. Just last week, as my youngest granddaughter and I walked into our local post office, I found $38 on the sidewalk. We took it inside, where I turned it over to one of the clerks. She asked for my name and phone number and told me that, if no one claimed the money in a week, it would be mine. I told Rachel that if I got such a call, we would give the money away.
Believe it or not, the clerk called me at the end of the week, and we picked up the money. Rachel is helping me decide which charitable organization we will give it to, and she is to write the letter to the organization. Like the allowance system I just described, this is another example of ways adults can model charitable behavior. Hopefully such little things, done over and over, will give children a meaningful answer when asked, “What did you give for Christmas?”
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.