A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in The New York Times about these wealthy families who are trying to teach their children to be generous by having them learn about a new culture and that culture’s food and then preparing an international feast, which they donate to a homeless shelter.
One mother was quoted as saying, “Our kids are learning that some people don’t have enough to eat while simultaneously learning about the world and its cuisine.”
I don’t want to take away from what they’re doing because I think that it is a very good thing when we recognize and try to solve -- even in some small way -- the problem of many of our neighbors and friends not having enough to eat.
But I have to be honest -- the whole article made me roll my eyes. I just don’t think that in being generous there is any room at all for your own agenda, no matter how valuable you perceive that agenda to be.
I’m not a parenting expert -- far from it -- and I’ll tell you that there has been no other challenge in my life during which I have ever wished more for an instruction manual or at least a playbook than parenting my two boys.
So here’s the thing: I don’t know how to raise generous children, but I desperately want to.
In fact, if I wished one thing for my boys (besides the incredible blessing of good health), it would be that they grow up to be kind and generous people, that they think about the needs of others, that they somehow contribute to the quality of others’ well-being.
I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity for the last few months because lately I have been broadsided by the generosity of others. I grew up in a very small town and everybody knows everybody. As a teenager, this was the bane of my existence. I couldn’t do anything without my parents finding out about it; thus, I spent the bulk of my teenage life grounded at home with my mom and dad.
Now as a parent myself, I see real value in being part of a tight-knit community like my hometown with eyes everywhere on our children. But I have also seen the value of this tight-knit community from a perspective that I never expected: as a daughter.
My dad is dying. Starting last March, my dad has experienced what can only be described as a series of health catastrophes that have left him incapacitated in many ways, a shell of his former self. Maybe you’ve been through this yourself. Maybe not. What I’ll say about the experience is that it is devastating in ways that you cannot quite fathom until you’re dealing with it.
But what has kept me -- not to mention my mom and dad -- buoyed through all of this is the generosity of my hometown, of friends and neighbors, and my old high school classmates. People have made dinners and baked my dad’s favorite cookies and pies. They have visited him in the hospital and stayed with him at home so my mom could leave the house. They have taken him for drives and for boat rides; they have brought over vegetables and fruit from their gardens. They have brought books they thought he might like. They have called and stopped by just to chat. My old classmates visit and send me reports of how he seems to be doing that day. My dad sometimes receives a dozen letters and cards a day, from folks as varied as the woman he harasses about his water bill at City Hall to people who have adopted animals my dad has fostered.
That is generosity. Kindness. There is no agenda but to offer yourself any way you can to a dying man and his family.
So how does this translate to teaching my kids about being generous? Good question.
I don’t have all of the answers yet. Of course there is generosity on a grand scale: the charitable giving, the gift of time to various boards and foundations, etc. Again, I think that is all wonderful and important and I believe it is necessary and makes the world a better place.
But maybe we teach our kids how to be generous by just offering ourselves any way we can to people who need us, including our very own children.
Of course if you’re knee-deep in parenting, you’re probably thinking that I am off my rocker. After all, isn’t that the very definition of parenting: giving of yourself any way that you can? Admittedly, in my own life, there are days when I wear the many needs of my children like a wet, woolen sweater; if one more person needs something, it is entirely possible I will run away and never look back.
But after watching people just show up on my parents' doorstep, offering my mom and dad help in a myriad of ways with no expectations, I have been working very hard to step toward the needs of my children instead of waiting to be pressed up against them. I’m also trying hard to do this with my coworkers, with my students and with my friends.
But with my boys especially. I’m trying very hard to be more present, more appreciative of those ordinary moments of parenthood when you drag yourself out of bed in the middle of the night to comfort your little one who has had a bad dream or you listen patiently to a story that seems as if it might never end.
As we enter this so-called season of giving -- which always seems to be fully weighted with agendas and expectations -- maybe if we want our children to be generous, it is less about writing a check and more about just showing up on the doorstep of their lives with a proverbial casserole. Maybe all it takes is the gift of being fully present, giving them our full attention. Maybe teaching generosity to kids is more about being there, lending a hand or lending an ear, and offering ourselves.
Sara Groves is a freelance writer who lives in Helena.