While Christmas is traditionally a time to spoil your children, it’s also an opportune time to teach them why it’s better to give than receive.
‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, but, let’s be real: For kids, especially little ones, Christmas is all about receiving. And why wouldn’t it be? I mean, we’ve gone so far as to invent a fat, old (and, according to Fox News, white) man who runs an elf sweatshop just to make enough toys for them all.
Plus, kids are literally broke, so even when they “buy” presents for their parents or siblings, they’re not actually the ones shelling out for them. So how do you make the act of giving mean something during the holiday season? Well, you kinda have to convince them to give their own toys away. Ultimately, that’s the only thing they identify as truly theirs and, therefore, it’s the only thing they have to give that counts.
Sure, they didn’t buy their toys, either, but children are incredibly possessive and these are more than mere objects to a child who owns nothing else. One of the first words a toddler tends to learn is “mine,” and when they hit three or four, they start to define themselves by these prized possessions. They become extensions of themselves. Linus and his security blanket aren’t that far off from a real kid and their favourite stuffie, doll, or tank engine.
But while it’s a natural part of kids’ development to feel overprotective of their limited belongings, my wife and I thought it important to teach our four-year-old son, Emile, how to let go of these possessions, too—and there’s no time better than the holidays for teaching him about the importance of giving to others, especially those he doesn’t even know.
So, this Christmas, we wanted E to put together a pile of his toys to donate. As a daycare kid, he’s always been pretty good at sharing despite being an only child. But you teach sharing by making sure the kid knows they’re getting their stuff back. Giving or donating is a much more challenging concept because it’s permanent and, honestly, we had no idea how this was gonna go. Generosity and empathy are pretty advanced emotional concepts for a four-year-old, but that’s precisely the age when you should start instilling them.
Turns out, as you can see from the photo above, it went pretty well. Halloween paved the way, though. As much as E loves Christmas, the skull ornament he hung on the tree this weekend indicates he loves the spooky as much as the sweet—and he loved doling out candy to other kids as much as collecting it himself. So we asked him to pick which toys he wanted to give away and he slapped on his Santa hat and got right into it, dispensing his belongings with surprising enthusiasm and strategy.
“You can donate this penguin because I already have a penguin, but I’m going keep my ukulele because it’s from Hawaii and I can play cool music on it,” he explained. “And I’m gonna keep my magic wand because I just got it.” He also got rid of a lot of toys for which he considered himself too big. But he gave away items he loved, too, like a toddler-sized Winnie the Pooh stuffie, his Mega Bloks, various books, a helicopter, and some high-tech ladybug thing that made lots of (annoying) sounds.
And he was not only willing to part with his stuff—excitedly stuffing them into a bag like a shrink-rayed St. Nick—but understood why, too.
Emile underwent surgery earlier this year, a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy that led to him losing nearly a quarter of his body weight during his lengthy recovery. So we decided to donate his toys to SickKids Hospital. “The doctors say the kids have to play so they can get better,” Emile explained afterward. “But they don’t have any toys, so we have to bring them some!”
Then, last weekend, during a seasonally appropriately blizzard, we grabbed the bag of toys and hopped a streetcar to the hospital. Santa and some elves were leaving just as we got there, which blew Emile’s little mind, and then he cheerfully put his own Santa hat back on and dragged his toys to the donation counter.
Turns out you can’t donate used toys to SickKids because it’s, well, full of sick kids. They need to be really careful about germs, so the hospital only accepts new, boxed toys. I got worried for a sec, since the endgame was to teach Emile about giving, a lesson that would be somewhat muted if his gifts were rejected. Thankfully, the nice lady behind the counter said we could still put the bag in the donation cart and, the next time Santa came by, he’d bring it over to another charity organization where they do take used toys*.
Despite that hiccup, the experiment was a resounding success. But I think we can put a lot of that on Christmas itself. It’s the perfect time to introduce the concept of donations to Emile, because he’s well aware that new toys will soon be appearing under the tree (especially since the handwritten letter he mailed to the North Pole received a reply).
Noting the proud grin plastered upon his face, I asked Emile how giving his toys away made him feel. “Happy!” he exclaimed brightly. “The clowns that work here [at SickKids] will say ‘good job’ to me! And now Santa can give me different toys. I know what he’s going to give me this year—a Transformer!”
And then he started singing “Feliz Navid,” the carol he learned for his junior-kindergarten Christmas concert, as we headed back out into the snowstorm.
*CORRECTION, DEC. 17, 2013: Based on information given to the writer by the SickKids employee he met, the original version of this article stated that Toy Mountain accepts used-toy donations, however, this is not the case.