My daughter clutched her piggy bank tightly as we walked into the store. She must be having second thoughts. I’m a terrible parent. How is empathy and compassion this hard to teach to a five-year-old? How do you teach a child that has every opportunity and never goes without food, clothes, or toys that this isn’t the norm? When all of her friends never go without either.
Growing up in an upper-middle-class area, I thought that was the norm as well. But we always volunteered at church activities, collected canned goods, donated old clothes to GoodWill. It wasn’t until my mom brought me to a soup kitchen in the inner city of Detroit at the age of twelve that I truly realized how blessed I was. It was there that I saw where those canned goods, old clothing, and monetary donations went. I was shocked to see elderly people who could barely walk with no coat on in the frigid Michigan winter. The single mom with four children all clinging to her for the rest of the food on her plate. I also saw many smiles. Smiles of thankfulness that we were there to serve them a warm plate of food. It was there that I learned empathy and compassion. I felt so guilty leaving that day in my warm clothes. I felt guilty for always wanting more from my parents. It was there I decided I wanted to do more and give back. From then on, we went once a month to help feed the homeless and each time we went, more people would join us and learn the gift of giving.
I was now standing at Target in my mother’s shoes. I wanted my daughter to learn compassion and empathy. I think as a parent those things are hard to teach your children, but they’re the most important. It’s great to teach our children confidence, manners, kindness. It’s important for our children to do well in school, be good at a sport, have a work ethic, but are we all teaching empathy and helping out others? We all want to give our children every opportunity and we never want them to go without. But somewhere in there is a fine line.
I decided to cross that line as my five-year-old was at the age where she was starting to think that asking for a ton of Christmas gifts was normal. Where halfway through this hellish year I gave in and started saying yes to everything because I was too tired to fight. In a year where the norm is staying 6 feet away from each other, how do you demonstrate empathy, compassion, and grace to one another? I explained to her how mom and dad decided this year to choose some organizations to donate money and gifts to and asked if she wanted to be a part of helping. She immediately started asking questions. Why don’t these kids have parents to buy them presents? Why can’t Santa just bring them gifts? Why can’t these children come live with us? Were these kids like Annie and lived in an orphanage? She first offered up her old used toys and clothes. I told her that was a great start, but I think it would also be nice to buy them new toys. She agreed. “Mommy get your money let’s go get them toys.” I then showed her the toys I had already purchased for them from myself. She looked over at her piggy bank. Her life savings. She earned $5 a week for her chores. “I guess I could share some of my money,” she hesitantly said. I told her to grab her bank and let’s go to the store.
So, there we were. Standing in Target. She starts pointing out the toys she wants. I tell her that’s great but we’re not here for her. I then try to instill the empathy. “There is a little girl your exact age who really wants a new toy. What do you think she would want? There is also a boy your little brother’s age and he has nothing for Christmas either. What kind of toys would he want?” She clutched her piggy bank and then ran towards the baby dolls. She seemed excited. She started grabbing a ton of stuff and throwing it all into our cart. I explained to her how much money she had to spend (now it’s a math lesson as well). She decided on one big Barbie doll, a baby doll, and a soccer ball set. As we stood in line to pay, she now seemed upset. I asked her if she still wanted to spend her money to help. She told me she felt bad she couldn’t buy them more stuff. I told her if she really wanted to help more, I could pay her allowance a day early. She nodded and ran back to grab a board game that was on sale. “I think the little girl and boy will love to play this because I love to play this game with my brother.” As we walked out she looked up at me and said, “that was the most fun I’ve ever had shopping.” I felt accomplished as a parent hearing that. But I didn’t stop there.
The next day we drove up to our local soup kitchen where my daughter witnessed us actually handing over the presents. Due to Covid and her age, she couldn’t go into the soup kitchen and actually see those children receive the presents, but one day she will. I know that this will be a memory that will stay with her and will not get lost like a toy. It will be something that sticks with her as it did with me that very cold day in Detroit. I will make sure she knows how blessed she is and how blessed it is to help others. How the joy of giving is truly better than receiving.
Rachael Ramas is a writer and chief encouragement officer to her fam of four. She is a baby lover, old people hugger and schedule juggler. As a midwestern girl living in a South Florida world, she enjoys transcribing her time raising her fivenager daughter and wild man two year old. She doesn’t take herself too seriously but does her kids bedtime.