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 be a year-round thing, but often 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 meal on Christmas Day, let alone a gift to open.
It puts things in sharp perspective for me when late Christmas Eve my husband and I are sitting on the floor in front of the fire, 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 and nieces and nephews after a frenzy of last-minute shopping when we cheerfully drop a sum of money that could keep a less fortunate family living for months.
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 giving 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 like that idea, but I feel like 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. They 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 Boxing Day sales after Christmas to buy a few blankets and drop them off at a shelter. I think they're beginning to understand that part of life is not just working to have what you want, but also working to help those who have not.
Last year we donated baskets of basics to an organization that gifted them to women leaving shelters and beginning a new life with their children. The children were very involved in the process of assembling the baskets, and it was eye-opening for them to realize that for some people even the very basic necessities of home life - blankets, soap, frying pans, forks, pyjamas - 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 xBox games on their wish lists rather than warm coats for winter and a pillow to sleep on.
We love to spoil our kids at Christmas as much as we possibly can - we work hard for what we have and it gives us pleasure to treat our kids on special occasions - but I don't want them to grow up spoiled. I think 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 is helping them grow up to be good and generous little people, and I think that the holiday season, when everything is infused with a little extra warmth and love, is the best time to reinforce that lesson.
This year, on the way to our Town tree lighting and Santa Claus Parade, as I was wrestling with whether to ask them to contribute some of their money to our family charitable efforts or whether to talk to them about various charities and let them decide how they wanted to help, my eight-year-old piped up from the backseat: "Mom, I know what I'm saving up for. I'm going to buy toys to put under the tree at school for the kids that don't get any." My heart melted. My eyes teared up. My boys have learned the importance of giving.
Originally published as "Teaching Children About Giving" on my weekly column at gailvzoxlade.com