When My Kids Insist On Being Generous

My daughter’s class made care packages during the holidays last year. I’d received the email requesting a $3 donation, so I knew they were putting together bags of snacks, water, and basic toiletries. I also knew the next step was that I would help her give this bag to someone.

It was interesting to hear my 4-year old explain the project. She described the bags they’d made for “people who didn’t have those things” or “for lonely people.” She consistently referred to the tote of goodies as her “kindness bag.” I appreciated her teachers’ attempts to discuss this complex topic with a room full of question asking preschoolers. 

Our family has lived in a poor neighborhood my daughter’s entire life, and we have been involved in urban ministry and community development along the way. Still, her enthusiastic desire to “go find a lonely person” was challenging. For the obvious reason that it’s uncomfortable to walk up to a stranger and hand her a bag of toiletries and snacks. But also because we wanted to be very careful we would not sacrifice the dignity of another person in order to educate our own child. 

The truth is, I hoped my daughter would forget all about the kindness bag. But the mind of a four year old can be remarkably fixated. So, one chilly evening in December, we piled into our car with the sole purpose of finding someone in need of snacks and lotion. 

In the mix of cleaning up dinner and zipping coats, my husband and I had quickly hashed out three guidelines in hopes this exchange could be positive for all involved. Here’s what we came up with:

1. We wanted to give appropriate items.

Before we left, I opened the bag. It held a lot of miniature lotions, a bottle of water, pretzels with cheese, four shower caps, and other items. I plucked out most of the shower caps and a package of dental gauze. And we added more food items from our own snack stash. (With two young kids, snacks are our lifeblood.)

2. We wanted to foster a relational exchange.

It was important to my husband that we not pass the bag out of a car window. So we drove to places in our neighborhood where people are often asking for help. When we saw a couple folks at the freeway exit ramp, we parked and walked to meet them. We also prepared our daughter to introduce herself and ask others for their names.

3. We wanted to leave space for others to say no.

I’ve witnessed “aggressive givers.” There can be an attitude that suggests whatever and however I want to give is better than nothing, so others should accept it and be grateful. While my daughter really wanted to give away her kindness bag, I wanted her to know it’s not all about her. (An ironic lesson we must learn in generosity, no?) We helped her share that her class had made this bag of snacks and things and then to ask the man if he would like it. We left room for him to say no.

So how did it go? Well, the trio of adults by the exit ramp started by asking if we were okay. Then, one of the men held up a cardboard sign to us, so my daughter introduced herself and asked his name. He offered a fake one, which was was obvious by the laughter coming from the others.

The woman leaned over to me and asked what she was selling. I explained that my daughter’s class had put together a bag of items to share. “Ah, for the homeless,” she said while nodding knowingly.

“Sergio” handed my daughter a dollar (he must have also thought she was selling things) and accepted the bag. Then, the woman and my husband recognized each other from years ago when my husband managed a local thrift store. They exchanged pleasantries before she asked him for .75. Since he was still holding Sergio’s dollar, it was an obvious - if amusing - offering.

We said our good-byes and headed back towards our parked car a block away. As we jogged across the exit ramp, my daughter held my husband’s hand in front of me. She turned her head and shouted, “I’m happy!”

Of course, my mama heart was full. But it was also conflicted.

I found myself thinking about the woman’s comment: “Ah, for the homeless.” The men and woman we met were smart. They knew our outing was a lesson in giving for our daughter. In fact, they may have shared their own care packages when they were children.

I wrestled with familiar questions: Are we really helping? Are we being kind? How do we teach our children to share? How do I foster on-going, age-appropriate conversations on poverty and generosity?

I’m always interested to hear how other parents are teaching their kids about generosity while also affirming the dignity of those around them. We are still learning. At the end of the day, my hope is that we shared a moment with our neighbors and our children that affirmed we are all part of a community that includes folks without a place to stay and preschoolers with too many shower caps. And I hope that in the process, the people we met were happy, too.

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