‘Tis the Season of Giving – Empathy may be the greatest gift

I remember the Christmas that my oldest son, Jack, was in kindergarten, and, like most children, his anticipation of the big day was reaching a fevered pitch. He had made his list, checked it twice, gone to see Santa, and was full of the confidence that only a 5-year-old can possess that, come Christmas morning, his stocking would overflow.

However, what he didn’t realize at that young age is that not every child goes to bed on Christmas Eve with visions of sugarplums dancing in his head. In fact, many go to bed cold and hungry. Some don’t have a bed at all. He was completely unaware that Santa didn’t visit every child, and it had absolutely nothing to do with behavior. Earlier that season my husband and I had decided that this was to be the year we actually involved our children in spreading Christmas cheer to those less fortunate and impart the lesson of what Christmas is really all about. We decided that the best way to do this was to host a Christmas party for a group of boys residing in one of the cabins at Roy Maas’ Youth Alternatives Meadowland Campus. These boys were around the same age as my oldest son, and I knew that he would enjoy selecting toys and games that would appeal to them. Sure enough, armed with a list of needs and wishes, Jack, his 3-year-old brother and I set out to do some holiday shopping. However, things didn’t go exactly as planned. While Jack was very happy to spend time in the toy aisle filling the “wish list,” when it came to picking out the “needs,” he grew whiny and irritable.

At one point, he looked up at me,

rolled his eyes, and whined, “WHHHHYYY would anyone ask Santa for underwear?

That’s boring. Everyone has underwear.”

I looked at his innocent little face and realized that yes, in his world everyone did have underwear that just magically appeared, clean and nicely folded in a drawer. I realized then and there it was time to step up my game when it came to instilling a sense of awareness and empathy in my children. I gently explained to Jack that no, some children do not have underwear, to which he exclaimed, “But why ask Santa for it? That’s what mommies are for.”

At that point, I explained that some children have mommies who cannot afford to buy them new underwear. There are some children who have mommies who don’t care whether or not they even have underwear. Worst of all, there are some children who don’t have mommies to care for them, period. At that point, something registered on that little face, and my son began throwing packages of underwear into our cart with a passion. He picked Spider-Man, Superman, the Incredible Hulk — no superhero was left behind as he built his pile, until I assured him that we had more than met the underwear criteria. When we got home, we wrapped all our gifts and prepared to take them to the children’s home. Jack played “Santa,” distributing the gifts and watching happily as they were opened. He played with the other little boys and realized that they had the same interests, the same hopes and the same dreams as he did, even if their circumstances were different. In fact, my sons enjoyed the experience so much they wanted to do it again the next year, and they did — only this time they invited several of their classmates and their families to participate, and it grew into an annual tradition during our sons’ primary years. Today, the boys, now 12 and 10, still volunteer and not just at the holidays.

My point is this: The world our children live in is vastly different from the one in which most of us grew up. It is a very narcissistic society that bombards our children daily with what they need to own or do in order to be deemed “cool.”

It becomes very easy for them to become so immersed in their own world that they forget to look up from their smartphones and see that there are people around them who could use a helping hand.

The holidays are an excellent time to expose your children to philanthropy and to show them that donating time is just as important as donating money, if not more so. It doesn’t have to be something as elaborate as hosting a holiday party. You can take blankets to the homeless on a cold night. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Help wrap or deliver presents for Elf Louise. Take part in the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree. Or even walk the dogs at an animal shelter. Just remember that it is the season for giving, not getting. To quote Dr. Seuss, “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps means a little bit more.”

By Bonny Osterhage

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