Like many parents, I want my children to be kind. I want them to understand how lucky they are. I want them to want to give to others, and to experience the joy that comes with such charitable actions. I naively thought that this would just sort of happen -- either via genetic makeup, or via osmosis. Mom likes to give = kids like to give, right?
The first time I volunteered, I was a 22-year-old recent college grad. Feeling over-privileged and longing for a meaningful life beyond beer and boys, I signed up to deliver a meal to an elderly stranger. She was a blind woman living in a run-down high rise in a sketchy part of town. I was shy then, and nervous as we made small talk in her cramped kitchen. During a lull in the conversation, I asked her if she needed anything from the drugstore across the street. I returned fifteen minutes later with a bag of household staples like toilet paper, toothpaste and Trident bubble gum.
When I left her that day, I remember experiencing what felt like a humanity-induced-high, something similar to the Character in Avenue Q who, upon donating money for the first time to a friend shouts "I feel like a new person! A good person!" and then breaks into song. After that, I volunteered regularly. I spent Christmas day visiting elders who were alone on the holidays. I did the same for Holocaust survivors around the Jewish holidays. I participated in a Team in Training century ride for The Leukemia Society, and donated to the food bank.
Fast forward a few years to the birth of my two sons, Ethan, now 8 and Jonas, 7. I quickly discovered that the giving spirit, while not completely absent, was not ingrained from birth. So I tried to engage them in giving activities whenever possible. For instance, every year our whole family does a walk for ovarian cancer in honor of my mother, the grandmother they never met. Occasionally I also ask them to pack up old toys and clothes with me so we can donate them to Cradles to Crayons.
Unfortunately, the connection from these activities to the values I hope to instill in them is shaky. Depending on the day, my boys may give willingly to "children who have no toys" or may scream in protest, suddenly coveting the toys they haven't played with in years. As for the Ovarian Cancer walk, I suspect that the raffle prizes are what resonate most with them. Still, I hold out hope that something about these attempts will plant a message in their tender psyches, the way my father's box of canned goods for donation was planted in mine.
Last year, however, any charitable brainwashing plans I had for my kids were abruptly interrupted by a breast cancer diagnosis. At 44-years-old, I underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as my boys looked on, sometimes asking questions, other times simply rubbing and kissing my bald head. As friends and doctors advised me not to take on too much during this time, I postponed some new parenting to-do's I wanted to implement, like allowance. A friend had shared with me the idea of using three jars for the money: one for spending, one for saving and one for giving. Last September, when I was feeling better, I introduced my idea.
"So you'll each get six dollars," I said, proudly sharing with them their new piggy banks. "And you put two in spending, two in savings and two in giving."
"What?" Ethan snapped. "I'm not giving my money away."
"You'll still have other money you can save and spend," I assured him. "And we can pick charities you guys like, maybe ones that help animals? Or kids?"
"Animals!" Jonas shouted. "I want to help the animals."
Ethan, however, erupted into tears, "That's not fair! I'm not giving my money away."
I stared at him, pained by his coldness, as though I had birthed myself a mini-scrooge, forgetting for the moment that he was just a child.
"What if it was a breast cancer charity?" I asked then, a question that surprised me both in the way it suddenly came out, and the vulnerability I felt as I waited for his response.
The expression on Ethan's face softened. "OK," he said.
Coming home from school a few days later, Ethan proudly told me he'd made bracelets that would be sold to raise money for breast cancer research. Another win.
I'm not saying getting cancer is the way to invoke the giving spirit in your kids. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I think, though, there's something about making it personal. About bringing the concept of giving "home" in some way. Entering not through the head, perhaps, but through the heart.
This post is part of a series produced in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2014) on December 2. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. The Huffington Post will feature posts on #GivingTuesday all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.
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