"Did they have a home?" my then three-year-old asked as I finished telling him the Christmas story.
"Yes, they had a home," I said. While his question surprised me, it wasn't out of nowhere. At the time, we had been talking about how not everyone has the same privileges we do, including homes.
While these discussions are important all year round, I find them especially important at the holidays. It's easy for kids to get wrapped up in the surface-level magic, from twinkling lights to presents.
Here are some ways to turn away from consumerism and towards serving others during the holidays:
Have kids pick out gifts for others
We had our older son start buying presents for others when he was three. While we pay for it, he's actively involved in the process of picking out the present. We use it to reinforce the real reason for giving gifts - to show our love for each other. Having kids pick out presents for others also helps them consider how other people's needs and wants would be different from their own. When we first started, we asked him what to get a friend's five-year-old for his birthday. Our son originally suggested the same tractor that we bought for a one-year-old's birthday party a few weeks earlier. After explaining that he probably wouldn't enjoy that toy, we helped him think of things the other kid would like more.
Talk frankly about economic inequality
Giving to charity is a great starting point for conversations about economic inequality. As a kid, my mom taught me how lucky I was to have a good home, loving parents, plenty of toys/books, and wonderful experiences. She wasn't trying to pull a guilt trip; she was making me aware of my privilege. I'm so glad she did. In addition to gifts for people we know, our kids pick out donations for our city's toy drive or Toys for Tots. Before buying the present, we explained that some kids' parents don't have enough money to buy their kids gifts. By donating a toy, we could help those kids get presents. Participating in an Angel Tree, which allows children of prisoners to ask for presents, is another good option. It also presents a way to start a conversation about the criminal justice system with older kids.
Include service in your holiday traditions
When I was a kid, my mom organized an Advent calendar with a different activity each day. While most of them were focused on our family, "Donate to Toys for Tots" was always on there. Having it there not only forced us to find time to do it, but imprinted it on my childhood Christmas memories. Other ideas can include serving at a food bank, collecting diapers for a diaper bank, or singing Christmas carols for residents at a local assisted living facility.
Make something unique for the local homeless program
Our local homeless outreach program provides a handy list of activities kids can do to help. They include everything from baking cookies to drawing colorful holiday placemats. While your local program may not have the exact same needs, find out if they have any suggestions for kids in particular.
Get your kids' organizations involved
Getting a church youth group, Scout group, or class to collect goods for a local charity multiples your impact. Our church often collects socks, hats, scarves and gloves for the homeless program. Focusing on non-food products is often the best way for the organization to get the most for your money. Food banks and soup kitchens can often get food cheaply, but non-food goods are difficult to get discounts on. In particular, diaper banks are essential to helping needy families with young children. Mothers can't use food stamps on diapers and may have to choose between diapers and other essentials. Daycares also require parents provide their own diapers. Without daycare, parents can't work, reinforcing the cycle of poverty.
Make something for the animals
Not everyone we serve has to be human. We like coating pinecones in peanut butter, rolling them in birdseed and hanging them from the trees. You can set the stage by reading books where Santa (or the animal equivalent) brings animals presents, like Merry Christmas, Ollie! and The Animals' Santa.
As my kids grow up, I hope they realize that we too have a role to play in the Christmas story. By finding ways to serve others at Christmas, we can show the love of the season to everyone.
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