Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Learning to Give

I'm a gifts girl. I love to buy gifts. Give gifts. Receive gifts. "Treats," as I like to call them, make me happy. By default, I love the Christmas season. On a typical year, I'll make an Excel workbook with separate sheets for immediate family, extended family, friends, and miscellaneous - you can laugh. I know it's ridiculous. My sheets have gift names, where to buy it, how much it costs and of course, a place to put a big X when I've actually purchased the gift. My niece Sydney was nice enough to have a December 5th birthday AND live in a place that requires package shipping, so her birthday is typically the benchmark of when my shopping needs to be done, wrapped, packaged in boxes and in the mail.

This year is different. We moved Thanksgiving week, our kids switched to new schools and our life has been a blur of projects, work, and unending To-Do lists. I never even considered a spreadsheet, didn't ask anyone what they wanted for Christmas, completely forgot about Sydney's birthday until midnight of her actual birthday, felt totally lame about it, and then drug my two youngest daughters through an exhausting day of shopping because I felt I had to buy Syd's birthday present AND all the gifts on my imaginary "extended family" Christmas list, even though I had no idea what anyone wanted or needed.

As I was standing in line at the post office, taping my packages and addressing them while I waited, I decided that it was time for my kids to learn to give. When we got home, I sat our four kids down and told them I was going to give them each $5 and then take them on a date to the Dollar Tree. Their eyes lit up and they immediately started mentally scanning the aisles for treasures to bring home when I burst their bubble and told them that they needed to pick out a present for each person in our family. Katie quickly did the math and pointed out that we have six people in our family, not five. And that's when I dropped the bomb that they didn't get to choose a gift for themselves. Eyes welled with tears, whining ensued and pouty faces popped out. I explained that God wants us to be a cheerful giver and I emphasized the fun of choosing an individual gift for each person. They started to brighten and I added that if they asked for anything for themselves, they'd have to put their gifts back and wouldn't be able to participate in the gift giving.

Over the next two days, I took the kids on little excursions to the local Dollar Tree. I got such a kick out of watching them shop. They all insisted on carrying their own shopping basket and even pip-squeak Paige wouldn't let me help. She struggled through the store, lugging her basket with treasures in tow, saying, "No Mommy. I do it myself." I gave the kids cash and they each handled their own transaction by themselves, loading their items on the belt, paying the cashier, and gathering their receipts. Their faces beamed and they puffed up their chests with pride as they waltzed out the door with their packages.

Katie and Paige shopped decisively, confidently and quickly. They saw something they liked, threw it in their basket and moved on to the next person on their list. They were in and out in 10 minutes and they both picked the exact same gift for Curt!

Grant and Alli were poky, deliberate, and uncertain. They hemmed and hawed over every display, put stuff in their basket, then changed their minds and put it back. I was just about to set a time limit when they finally both agreed to head to the cashier. As we were walking out of the store, they continued to shop and Grant actually changed his mind, for the 100th time, and switched out his gift for Katie after he'd already bought one!

When we got home, we locked ourselves in the "gift wrapping" room while the other kids hovered around outside the door yelling, "Did you wrap my gift yet? What did you get me? Give me a clue." Each kid helped wrap and label the gifts they chose and it really warmed my heart to see how into the whole experience they got. No one asked for a gift for themselves and Grant even reprimanded me for being "selfish" at the store when I tried to sway Alli from buying me a hideous breakable nativity set. I patted myself on the back for a good learning experience and tweaked it so that next year, they can do chores leading up to the trip and earn the money themselves.

In the same week we did our giving experiment, I met a family in true need. They have 4 kids, similar in age to our kids, and by a series of poor choices, illness and bad luck, have ended up with almost nothing. When we moved, I did a major toy purge and gave away a lot of toys. I looked at what was left, still an abundance, but realized that the kids frequently used it all. I told them about this family and asked if they could go back through their things and come up with some toys for these kids. Grant, who has always been generous to a fault and has given tons of his things away to friends, struggled because he had only real treasures left, but still came up with a few things he was willing to part with. Katie and Paige were pretty stingy and only wanted to give broken toys or toys that belonged to someone else! Alli surprised me. She found a baby doll, dressed it in a super cute outfit and took a "seat cart" (doll car seat) that she bought with her own money, and put the baby in it. She also gave her favorite High School Musical Barbie with the singing microphone. With a huge smile on her face, she said, "This is for the little girls who don't have toys. My baby looks so cute that I think I want to keep it for myself, but I'll still give it."

This time it was my eyes that welled with tears and I realized that my daughter, who I thought I was teaching a lesson to, showed me through her generosity what it really means to give.

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