With the boys’ birthdays right around the holidays, I feel as if we do nothing for months but open gifts. Of course this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it
doesn’t prevent me from saying to Mike and Peter that in lieu of birthday gifts, perhaps they could encourage their friends and family members to bring food for Helena Food Share or to make a donation in the boys’ names to the Lewis and Clark Humane Society.
To say that this idea is met with resistance is more than a mild understatement.
“I want presents,” Peter said in response to my most recent annual suggestion. He is only in kindergarten and, I suppose, I can’t really expect him to be Mother Teresa. Yet, anyway.
But I’m working on it. It’s very important to me that my children understand how amazingly blessed they are and that most of the people in the world — even in our own city — are not so lucky. We are not wealthy — far from it; in fact, there are many months that require some pretty creative solutions to pay the bills. Plus there’s college and retirement to save for, and my barely there, shrinking portfolio — all of which sometimes keeps me awake at night.
But still, comparatively we have so much and because we’re so fortunate, I feel that we have a responsibility to be generous to others.
So our family does what we can. The charities we give to might seem all over the place, and actually, they are since I choose them based on my many varied interests and whatever might move me at a certain time. Families displaced by a natural disaster, college scholarship funds, building schools in Third-World countries, libraries, food banks, animal shelters — we’ve donated to all of them.
I can’t say that we’ve given a huge amount of money. Which means that sometimes I lie awake at night feeling as if the good I am trying to do by giving a little bit of money isn’t actually doing anything at all. It is a drop of water in an ocean of need. But then I remember Mother Teresa again, who said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, feed just one.”
Of course if you’re trying to teach children about giving to others, writing a check and sending it off to a charity can be a pretty abstract concept to grasp, even for older kiddos. At our house, the boys are encouraged to divide any incoming money — from money they’ve earned doing chores or gifts — into a Moonjar, which is like a three-piece piggy bank with sections for saving, spending and giving.
I put no stipulations on that money because it belongs to the boys. They are allowed to choose what amount goes in each section; I only provide guidance by encouraging them to put the most in savings and the least in spending (unless they have a certain item they would like to purchase for themselves).
For the giving section, the amount they put in is entirely up to them. I really do not want to let the perfect be the enemy of (very literally in this case) the good and I want the boys to understand that even if they’re not doing every little thing they can, they can still do something to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
One organization that the boys are particularly fond of is Heifer International, whose mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth. Instead of toys, Heifer International’s holiday catalog is filled with ways to support families who live in extreme poverty. You can purchase everything from clean water ($300) to a flock of chicks ($20) to honeybees ($30). You can buy shares of things like camels, water buffalo and cows; you can provide education for girls; you can buy stoves or irrigation pumps.
The boys like the very concrete idea of pooling their saved money to buy a flock of chicks or ducks to help provide food and an income for a family. I like that when the boys hear that a family doesn’t have clean drinking water, they begin to understand how most of the rest of the world lives: in extreme poverty without a roof over their heads, shoes on their feet, access to medical care or food in their bellies.
In this season of giving, how can we help our children understand that they have enough, that they lead very privileged existences and that whether you’re 7 years old or 27, you will somehow make it through if you do not have an iPod Touch?
By giving. Because when we give — when we reach out our hands to someone in need — it helps us to understand that we are coming from a place of sufficiency, that we have more than enough. And what better gift to give your own child: teaching them not to want, not to cleave to things, to money, to material items; to help them understand that, as St. Francis of Assisi so famously prayed, “For it is in giving that we receive.”
Sara Groves is a freelance writer who lives in Helena.