It’s not easy to teach small children about kindness to others, especially to others they don’t even know. Young children are, by their very nature, incredibly self-centered and self-absorbed. Although they start showing empathy early on, getting them to really think beyond their own little world and put themselves in someone else’s shoes is difficult. That is not to say it’s not worth trying, and trying frequently. Although they may not truly understand, the lessons we teach our children early on set the stage for how they think and behave when they are a little older. It’s an ongoing process, one that should last a lifetime.
My kids are incredibly fortunate little people, and this is never more apparent that in the fall and early winter, when the holidays are approaching and all three of my kids have birthdays. Simply put, there is an absolute glut of presents that come their way from our large and loving extended family. And the kids love it, of course. But as parents, it hits you a little…they get so much stuff when other kids have little to none. It leaves you feeling a little worried that your kids won’t learn gratitude and kindness, that they will become all too used to this influx of toys, clothes and other presents.
Last year, we decided to use their birthdays as an opportunity to teach them kindness and charity. We were hosting a combined birthday party for all three, but the idea of them getting even MORE stuff from their friends was a little distasteful to us. So we asked our extensive guest list not to bring presents for our kids, but instead bring a new and unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots. And I think many other parents were so delighted by the idea, they brought more than one item for the donation. We ended up with what amounted to a whole minivan’s worth of toys to donate (I know this, because I had to pack them all into our car!).
I know it was a little tough on my kids, seeing all the presents that weren’t for them. They asked several times if they could keep one, just one. But it was such a great way to open the discussion about kindness to strangers. We talked about how lucky they were to have a warm house, plenty of food and a loving family who bought them presents. We talked about other families who weren’t so lucky and who might not see any presents at Christmastime. It was all a little over the 3 year old’s head, but the older two really got it and enjoyed dropping the presents off at our local police department for Toys for Tots. I could see the delight on their faces when we filled the entire donation box with our collection.
This year, we aren’t hosting a large birthday gathering. But we intend to continue the tradition anyway, and have each of our kids pick out a toy or two to donate. And as they get older and more emotionally mature, I can only hope that these little lessons sink in and pave the way for greater kindnesses. And I hope to teach them day-to-day kindnesses too, not just holiday ones, because every little bit helps.
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