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Teaching your Children the True Meaning of Giving


By Abigail Romirowsky, PhD

Before this year, there were already way too many families whose winter holiday season was marked by more pain than joy. This year, an unfathomable number of families will be hurting. Growing up, my mother, who worked tirelessly as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with families affected by addiction, gave my siblings and me concrete experiences of giving. Because we didn’t celebrate Christmas ourselves, we had plenty of time on Christmas Eve to help her wrap and give out donated gifts or help to make deliveries to local soup kitchens. And so I assumed that I would somehow know how to pass these values on to my own children.

Like most parents, I want my children to embrace this season as an opportunity for giving alongside the joy of receiving. But it was all abstract until my own child taught me a few lessons. We don’t always share this part with our friends, but in 2019 the eight nights of Chanukah in our home were marked by more than one exclamation of “Are there any MORE presents to open tonight, Mommy?”, not to mention the tantrums that resulted from extreme unmeetable anticipation coupled with inevitable disappointment. I experienced a range of emotions including but not limited to frustration, shame, and worry. And when other adults were there as witnesses, there was a healthy dose of embarrassment. To cope at the time, I made a silent vow to do it differently the next year. I had no idea at the time how much 2020 would make even more obvious how important it would be to be intentional about the gift-giving season.

Teaching Children the Meaning of Giving

As Thanksgiving approached, I started obsessing over the gift-giving plan. Planning ahead is admittedly my go-to strategy when I feel out of control. And sometimes it can rise to a level that can be really annoying to others (my family members and coworkers would likely agree). Ultimately, my obsessing led me to identify some core principles and related gift-giving actions to guide us this year.

Make giving concrete

Developmentally, young children can be so sweet and empathic, tending to love the ideas of giving to others and contributing to the world. But they still require concrete practice for giving behaviors to be part of their repertoire. It doesn’t matter how much I donate my own time or resources; if my child is not involved in the behavior of giving, he will not embrace this value long-term.

Honor a child’s autonomy

I know that my son has plenty of barely used (or even unopened) toys that I would love to donate to others who will enjoy them. But that does not mean that he feels the same way. And if I force him to give something to others that he would prefer to keep for himself, he will associate giving with a feeling of loss. This is even more true for children who are especially sensitive and sentimental. If, like me, you are the parent of a child who gets weepy when he finds that you threw dried out markers in the trash without his explicit permission, this principle will be especially important.

Expect and prepare for age-appropriate emotions. 

We have all experienced the twinge of disappointment when we have opened a gift that didn’t end up being what we had hoped. As we have matured, our brains cells have grown and strengthened the pathways needed to quickly assess how we feel, consider the importance of our relationship with the gift-giver, and execute a response that is socially appropriate and gracious in nature. Our kids simply cannot be expected to do the same anytime soon without our help. In the meantime, we need to have realistic expectations and openly discuss a plan with them about how they may feel, how they can manage those emotions, and how they can show their gratitude even when disappointed.

Social Justice

The way I think of charitable giving has been informed over the past year by reckoning more directly with my privilege. In past years, I told myself that donating to charity was the best I could do to address systemic inequality. Since then, I have learned how important it is that my own giving and the giving I am teaching my children be aimed at BOTH what I do AND how I think about it. When giving involves language such as “those less fortunate”, we reinforce biases that the recipients are inherently persons of lower value, rather than facing the reality that they are victims of systemic racism and inequality (and the fact that I personally haven’t done much about that). 

So unless we are intentional about our giving language, we risk passing along these biases to our children. The only way to avoid that risk is to be explicit about the fact that (a) there is nothing about any person’s character or worth that makes one more likely to be on the receiving end of giving and (b) that we are all at risk of financial hardship by forces outside of our control (such as medical illness, accidents, natural disasters, identity theft, etc). As parents of privilege, we worry about scaring kids too much. But I hope we can agree that this year especially, we have learned that children can handle upsetting information if it’s presented thoughtfully.

Ways to Teach Children to Give

1. Concrete Donation Plan

 Fortunately, Chanukah this year is earlier than Christmas so we can include the gift of toy donation to our local Toys for Tots on one of the earlier nights. In future years, I may include my kids in this more directly but this year I took a stroll through our library of children’s books and chose several that we have enjoyed often over the years. Then I purchased new copies of those books for my son to physically donate himself to Toys for Tots. I am hoping that when we read our copies, he will be reminded of the copy that is being enjoyed somewhere by someone who loves it too. We have also chosen a few other gifts to give in duplicate so he can donate one and enjoy one himself. This way, he can associate giving with receiving and generally positive and excited feelings rather than a sense of loss or disappointment.

2. Gift Opening Plan

We will be talking before the holiday and throughout about the reality of feeling let down or disappointed by a specific gift or by the end of the holiday. We will make a plan to first be “gracious enough” by saying “thank you” in-person, via FaceTime, or in a video message and then to cope with feelings of disappointment (e.g., remember something you are looking forward to playing with).

3. Socially Conscious Education Plan

We will read books about and have discussions about systemic inequality, highlighting as concretely as possible (a) how many children rely on donated gifts to have some joy during the holidays and (b) how similar these children are to my own, save for forces beyond their control. This year, I will give them printed photos of the gifts and messages I wrote on their behalf when donating via the gift registry for a local support organization.  In future years, I hope to incorporate them to help choose and write a message about what they love about this item.

I fully expect that this “pilot program” will have flaws (not the least of which will be the “over-planning”), but the nerdy behavioral scientist in me is eager to learn and recalibrate for years to come.

Dr. Romirowsky is the Director of the Child and Adolescent Program at The Ross Center.

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