The other day, Mitzi jumps off the bus and bounds up the walk, clearly fired up about something. “Mommy,” she yells. “I need to open my piggy bank!” Turns out her teacher reminded them of the school-wide program, Pennies for People, in which students bring in change or bills, all to be donated to a local women’s shelter. I watched, bemused, as my first born emptied her life savings into a plastic bag.
“Why don’t you keep your dollars?” I said. “You should have a couple to save.” After some cajoling, and with Muggy’s help, Mitzi relented and kept three one-dollar bills, and took away probably $20 in changes she’s been collecting these seven years.
I was a little stunned. We talk about people who don’t have it as nice as we do, usually in the context of “why you should eat your nice food” or “why you should put away your lovely toys”. But in their eyes you can kind of see the kids are on a different page, one that hasn’t come face to face with some harsh realities of the world around them.
At this time of year parents are always eager to take kids’ focus off the gifts and put it more onto the giving. Yet, so many parents seem to give in to the gimmes — a Nintendo DS here, a cell phone there, a full-sized electric car. I don’t get it.
For us, it’s impossible to buy a lot. That’s just our reality now. And maybe I would, if I could. I don’t know. Luckily, the kids are still young enough to not yet beg for the three dozen hot items of the shopping season. That will be coming soon enough. But this year their desires are small, with Ellie and Joanna struggling to come up with even a single idea, the concept of Christmas and Santa and lists still a bit beyond their years.
Everyone gathered around the kitchen table to watch Mitzi’s inspired act of charity, and we started talking about giving, why it’s such a focus at this time of year. I quoted my Mom: Your birthday is all about you; Christmas is all about everyone else. (We also talked a little bit about how charity doesn’t end in January, but that was pushing it a little for their age group, so it’s a chat for another day.) We tried to come up with some ideas for giving of ourselves, in ways big (Mitzi’s suggestions of donating all of our clothes) and small (Ellie thought that wiping her tush was an act of giving, which, for me, I guess it is). At the end of this creative discussion, we came up with the idea of our own “Giving Tree.”
Here’s how it works: Mitzi made a big tree out of craft paper, colored with crayons. Then she cut (sort of) circles out of construction paper. Every night after dinner we talk for a few minutes about what we acts of kindness or generosity we did that day. I write them down on the paper circle “ornament”, that kid tapes it to the tree. It’s been a huge success. So far we’ve done such world-changing things as “helped a classmate with his math” and “put away my shoes without complaining.” Throughout the day I remind them of the nice things they do — and how to do it, when the opportunity arises, such as “Cooper, it would be so kind if you gave Ellie your seat.” The kids are proud of themselves and love to put up their deeds, excited to see how filled our tree is already.
I know, it’s a bit silly and simple. Yet here we are, my family and me, every day talking about what we have done for others, not what we are hoping to get from someone.
Next year could be different. But this year, our giving tree has given us the chance to focus outward. This year, we are changed.
O, Christmas Tree!