Giving Children Giving Skills
“I told the kids where you were, and they are very proud of you,” my husband commented. I had just returned from a small bookstore in Santiago, where we were vacationing. I had been buying books and making arrangements to deliver them to the local library. “Why?” was my first reaction to his comment. Not why are they proud, but why did he tell them. I felt awkward. “Because,” he responded. “It’s important for them to know.” “I guess,” I said, sounding as uncomfortable as I felt. But I recognized that he was right.
It surprises me how reluctant I feel about explicitly exposing our two daughters to our giving, both to individuals and to organizations. I should know better, because I see parents pay the price for not doing so. But calling attention to it seems so, well, self promoting. I was raised on a Bible story in which Jesus stands outside the temple with his disciples watching Pharisees enter, dropping their coins with loud clanks and rattles into the tithe box at the door. Then a poor widow comes along and discretely puts in a mite—a small coin of little value. Jesus says first of all that the widow has given more than any of them, because she gave what little she had while they gave out of their surplus. But he also says that the Pharisees will get no reward in heaven; their only reward is the attention that they have sought and received. “When you give, go into a dark closet,” says the gospel writer.
Now, I’m not worried about gaining or losing rewards in heaven. But the sense has stuck that putting my giving in the public eye somehow diminishes the gift. It’s true even if those “public eyes” belong to one five-year-old and one six-and-a half year old. It’s true even if the gift goes on to do exactly what it was intended to do. I’ve wrestled and wrestled with my feelings about this, and have finally decided that I need to let the exposure diminish the gift in whatever way it may and “just deal with it.” Here is why.
Parents come in to my psychology practice – good parents, moral parents, generous parents, pillar-of-the-community parents, activist parents, even philanthropist parents, with children and teenagers who have never much considered what or how to give to the world around them, or even whether they should. They don’t know if it’s a part of their values. They don’t know if it is a part of their parents’ values or, if they do, they know so only in a vague, background sort of way. They definitely don’t recognize the importance their parents place on supporting the community outside of the family.
I suspect that many of these parents have a notion similar to my own about calling attention to their giving. Unfortunately, their modesty backfires. Rather than learning discrete generosity, their children learn no generosity, because neither the discretion nor the generosity is apparent to them.
A few months ago, I sat in my office with a high school junior who had just returned from a Habitat for Humanity trip in Mexico. He was talking about what it was like to experience the poverty of the families who were receiving the new houses. He was talking about what it felt like to be helpful to them. “Where did you get this energy from?” I asked him, somewhat surprised by his intensity. “How did this come to be a part of who you are and what matters to you?” “From my mother,” he answered immediately
I realized there was a part of his family experience that I didn’t know. He was in my office because his parents had gone through a difficult divorce, and each family member was, in his or her own way, struggling. We had been focused on declining grades, behavior problems, and conflicts. Pain makes us self absorbed, and he and his sister and parents hadn’t been very focused on the well-being of the world around them in the months since they had first come in to see me. It was all they could do to muddle their way through the emotional upheaval.
“From your mother,” I repeated. “How is that?” “Oh,” he responded, “She used to take us to serve holiday dinners for homeless people, and she helped with fund-raising for the PAWS shelter, and we were involved in our neighborhood clean-up. . . .” By the time he finished describing the many ways that his mother had involved him in her community service and giving, I had learned an important lesson. Giving was second nature for him, instinctive, like brushing his teeth. It was part of his normal equilibrium. As soon as he began emerging from the divorce process, it was there waiting for him. And I got it—why he was so different from other teenagers I had met who would have been puzzled or turned off by the Habitat trip.
It makes sense, of course. If we want our children to make their beds, we show them how it’s done, we coach them through it, and we nudge them along. If we want them to be readers, we read to them; we tell them it is important; we read together so that reading becomes part of our bond. If we want them to be kind to animals, we teach them how to pick up a cat, we remind them what it feels like for an unfed pet to be hungry, and we talk to animals in peculiar ways, pet them, and invite the children to join us. In all of these we model, teach, and encourage the desired habits. But if we want them to be civic minded or charitable, we expect them to pick it up by osmosis.
Let me tell you what happened as a result of my husband’s dialogue with the children. Not long afterward, back home, our six-year-old picked up a book about manatees. She has always been fascinated with marine mammals. In fact, her stated goal in life at one point was to become an Orca whale. And she always gets upset about the thought of them being endangered. This time, she came down stairs crying, saying, “Mommy, I want to send money to the manatees. I don’t want them to be extinct.”
She painstakingly dictated a letter to her aunt in Florida, asking about how to help manatees. She drew pictures of manatees being hit by boats, with a big circle and slash around them. And she set about raising money by pulling weeds, picking up messes, and making a one-box garage sale in which she sold—this is the bonus part—her only Barbie.
When she was still at it two months later, I helped her to sell drinks and brownies at a local parade. By then she had involved our next door neighbor girl and her little sister. A friend of ours dropped by, and, as he was leaving he drew five dollars out of his pocket. “This is for Bee’s manatee fund,” he said. “The boys pulled weeds in our back yard because they wanted to contribute.”
Now, I’ve never really focused before on helping manatees, but I’ll confess, I love it. I get that warm, I’m-in-love-with-my-kid feeling whenever I think of her sticking it out. “She’s becoming a regular mooch,” my husband said when he came home from work to find an elaborately decorated ‘change for manatees’ box on top of our drier. “No,” I reminded him. “It’s not mooching, it’s fund raising.” It was his turn to say, “I guess,” in that reluctant voice. He hates begging favors as much as I hate the public eye. But if we both have to squirm a bit along the way so that Bee can grow her helping instinct into a giving habit, so be it.