How to teach gratitude this Christmas
As a director of a nonprofit in urban Atlanta, during the holiday season my inbox inevitably fills with emails from parents eager to give back. “Do we know a family they can buy Christmas gifts for?” parents ask. “Can they bring their kids down to serve a meal, to deliver presents?”
Parents want to instill selflessness and generosity in their own children, to help them cultivate hearts of gratitude over greed. I sympathize with these parents. In many ways, I am this mom, trying desperately not to lose sight of the Truest things amidst the wild bustle of the holiday season. I desire my children to be compassionate and generous, particularly at Christmas, when they get bombarded by gifts.
My kids’ greed seems to grow alongside their stuffed stockings hung with care. At this point in the year, I often despair at my parenting abilities, threaten to cancel Christmas and/or give away every last one of their gifts.
This is why, of course, packing a shoebox, bringing a gift to someone less fortunate, or serving a meal at a homeless shelter feels like a necessary step in preventing my children from growing up to be stars of their own self-centered reality television show.
Why Giving Back at Christmas Won’t Work
The problem is that a once-a-year service project will never be enough. It’s better than doing nothing, obviously; however, I don’t want my standard as a parent to be simply “better than nothing.”
When I get emails from parents like this, I find myself somewhat unsure how to even answer these questions from desperate parents drowning in holiday hubbub. With fists raised in solidarity, sure, but also with a caution for our neighbors, who they want to “serve” in order to teach their kids a lesson in generosity.
When we facilitate these interactions, we end up turning our neighbors and friends in our community into caricatures. They can easily become an object lesson in more privileged children’s once-a-year exercise in gratitude.
I think everyone, on both sides of the equation, deserves better.
Instead, try this simple step to teach gratitude all year.
My best advice is both simple and far more difficult than a day at a soup kitchen. It is this:
Find ways to build actual relationships with people who are not like you, particularly with those who are marginalized.
Find ways to begin and nurture relationships that help kids look outside of themselves all year long, rather than just once a year.
The unfortunate truth is that there are no easy answers or quick solutions, both to the problems of poverty and to the daunting task of raising children who are grateful and not greedy. For both, it will require consistent investment to make a difference on both spiritual and physical levels.
We have bought into quick fixes and instant gratification, which is why our kids believe in the same things. We will never be able to lead our children into the freedom and joy of selfless living until we can untangle ourselves from the trappings of the American dream in search of the homeless Savior-King we celebrate this season.
Relationships with those on the margins (be it refugees, immigrants, incarcerated folks, at-risk youth, widows, orphans) tend towards messy. You will have to get our hands dirty and jump all-in, rather than just dipping a toe into good deeds practiced neatly every holiday season.
Just like you cannot exercise once a month and expect results (unfortunately!), you and your kids will need to consistently work out the muscles required for empathy. Stretching your muscles beyond what they can currently hold is hard, painful even. But without the effort, we will never know the things God might do in and through us. And beyond that, the things He will do in and through our kids.
It’s much easier (though admittedly still not always easy) for my kids to want to give away their extra toys to a neighbor friend they know doesn’t have any. Or to bring food to the homeless guy on the corner when they know his name, and have sat across the table from him to share a Thanksgiving meal. Suddenly things like hunger and no-place-to-sleep have real faces and names, and that is hard to ignore.
As a family, we talk about hard things, pray for people, and use our hands and feet to serve as often as we can, because we must. Our neighborhood offers an inability to escape the neediness around us. For those of you in the suburbs, you may have to look harder. You will have to reach out beyond your normal circle, step out from the typical routes you travel. But relationships with the ones who Jesus said are close to His heart will be worth the effort every single time.
Want to raise kids who aren't greedy at Christmas? Replace Consumerism With Friendship
Let’s decide right now that it has to start with us. Resisting the simple narrative is our battle cry.
The simple narrative says we need more stuff to have a better life. It says more presents equals more happiness. It also says we have lots to give that “poor people” need.
But resistance means discovering my own neediness, the places where I can receive. It means discovering all the ways my neighbors and the endless stream of teenage boys tromping through our front door are rescuing me from myself.
This holiday season, if you want your kids to be grateful, please do come downtown and serve.
But also sit down across the table from someone and share a meal. Bring toys, or better yet, begin a relationship. For me and for my children, mentoring has been the thing that flipped everything on its head. You can be a mentor too, and invite your own kids along!
This holiday season, make something lasting that just might turn your lives upside down.
Because if we want kids who aren’t selfish, we’re going to have to jump in and lead by example: afraid and brave at the same time, all year long.
What is one first-step you can take to teach your kids generosity?
P.S. Looking for an idea to get you started? Try my friend Laura’s Kindness Advent. I am obsessed with this and wish I was more on top of my life to do this too.