Passing values and desired behaviors on to our children is at once a mystery and a very simple thing.
It is mysterious, in that we can do everything in our power to mold and shape a child, only for the “result” to turn out as opposite as possible from our intentions. Similarly, there are children with no clear examples in their lives of how to live well, who by some seeming miracle end up just fine.
On the other hand, transmitting values is as simple as living them ourselves. The most powerful teacher is the example of our own lives, played out day to day, just doing what we do. Whether children choose for themselves to do as we do may be another matter, but after residing with us for nearly 20 years, sooner or later they know how we live.
Of my two children, one is by nature exceedingly generous, always concerned for the other person and especially the disadvantaged. That child, who simply loves giving, can hardly purchase a treat for self without buying for others and rarely fails to put a dollar in the offering plate.
My other child has always been fearful of not having enough. Little transpires without there first being a calculation of the cost, whether financial, emotional or in terms or time. This makes spontaneity a challenge, sharing difficult and generosity a stretch.
Whatever their basic tendencies, however, the question is: How can we engender generosity of spirit and of action in our children? By being generous ourselves, of course! And what might that look like?
First, a definition: By generosity I mean giving of one’s resources to others. This definition encompasses money, stuff, time and emotional connection. Do our kids see us freely sharing these resources? We start by expressing generosity toward our children–which is not the same as showering them with material goods. What they need more desperately from their parents is time (quality and quantity) and emotional openness. We share similarly with others who are close to us–such as relatives and best friends–as we stand ready to assist them with emotional support and material needs.
These, however, are just starting points. They say, “Charity begins at home.” But it is as we share with those with whom we do not have a personal connection–where there is no obligation and nothing in it for us–that kids really get to see what we are all about.
Our vocations may speak to our children of generosity. Those in certain professions–such as teachers, nurses, social workers and missionaries–help others in their daily work. They do so at personal financial sacrifice, compared to others with similar training and experience. This might be considered generous and perhaps in some ways presents such an example to children.
But does that mean that doctors and lawyers and business executives–who earn large salaries–do not help people? Or that garbage collectors and assembly line workers–who may earn smaller incomes and do not have direct contact with the public–do not help people?
Of course not. All parents can potentially find ways to show a generous spirit through their work. Children will hear that parents were leaders in their office United Way campaign, or that they did pro bono work, or that they organized a fundraiser for a sick colleague or that they helped a co-worker move. Whether built in to the nature of our employment, or less directly, we all have opportunities to be generous through our work. Our children will catch on to this.
Then there is church. Giving time and money through church community is not what every adult does. To volunteer to teach children or work in the nursery or sing in the choir or paint the fellowship hall or lead a Bible study–all such commitments demonstrate generosity.
Recently my husband and I filled out a pledge card for the coming year of church giving. The card asked us to indicate an annual pledge amount and how we intended to pay it.
Monthly or quarterly would be more convenient. Some churches offer bank draft services, an idea I like. But we again chose old-fashioned weekly giving. Why? We want our children to see that our family gives to the church on a regular basis. It is a good thing for kids to realize that their family chooses to give away “real money” that could be used for more clothes, more entertainment, more stuff, but will instead be used for the good of the church community and beyond.
Countless other “generous opportunities” are available in the community. Do we find time to volunteer to mentor a needy child in a school setting? Or to tutor an adult non-reader? Or to lead a scout troop? Or to take part in the Race for the Cure or other good-cause events. We clearly cannot do it all–especially when we have children at home. But most of us can do something of worth in our communities.
Coming full circle, let’s return to life around the house. That’s where our kids most often observe us. Perhaps it is there that the weekly check for church will be written, along with contributions to other charitable causes. Children can be invited to participate in these rituals. (“Would you lick the envelope? Let’s get your offering ready too.”) Beyond money, do we share our home and ourselves? Is the welcome mat out? Do we invite guests into our home–whether for dinner, dessert or a cup of something hot or a glass of something cold?
At surprisingly young ages, children can be included in family exercises of generosity. Beyond sharing with siblings, we can offer children opportunities to give to family, neighbors, strangers, in ever-widening circles. Families can donate toys at the holidays, with children choosing the gifts. Kids can be included with parents in periodic Meals on Wheels deliveries. Sunday school and church youth groups offer peer opportunities to assist others, that parents can encourage–visiting nursing home residents, stocking shelves of a food pantry, wrapping presents for kids at Christmas.
What really matters is that generosity is not a once-a-year special activity. It is an ongoing way of life that is woven into the fabric of all a family does. It is part of our conversations. It may even have something to do with how we vote. It influences where we go to church and what activities we support there. Kids don’t miss a trick. If we want generous kids, then we must be generous. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is chair of BCE’s board of directors