A few months ago, while walking in a throng of people in downtown Chicago, my oldest son asked for a few dollars. Assuming that he wanted to pop into a convenience store to buy a candy bar or a Gatorade, I immediately said “no.” He kept asking. I kept saying no, but he grew more insistent. Frustrated, I turned to my husband for help.
“What do you want the money for?” my husband asked.
“We passed a homeless man back there, and I want to give him some money,” my son said. I was proud of his thoughtfulness, and embarrassed that I hadn’t asked what he wanted the money for in the first place, but I wasn’t all that surprised by his request. Kids, by nature, are generous, thoughtful, and kind. Sure, they are a little selfish sometimes, and sharing can be hard, but overall, I believe in the inherent big-heartedness of children. They see a need, and they want to fill it.
It’s adults who complicate things. Adults muddy the waters, and create a world of haves and have-nots. Adults create hierarchies of worthiness. Adults tarnish our children’s big-hearted, open-minded, caring generosity.
But it is also we adults who can tend to their inherent generosity. We can praise their big-heartedness and help their open-mindedness grow. We can build up a generation of giving people who will build bridges and who just might save the world.
Last month, our family went to an open mosque event at Masjid Al Huda in suburban Chicago. To say it was one of the most beautiful and powerful experiences of my life is a vast understatement. The hosts welcomed their guests with broad smiles and open hearts, and hundreds of people of all walks of life and a wide range of faiths flocked to the mosque to show their support. The outpouring of love, togetherness, and generosity was simply breathtaking. Afterwards we talked a bit about the Muslim faith and the kindness we were shown by the hosts of the event.
A couple weeks later, I watched my 10-year-old son Jackson write his Christmas list. He wrote down things like “iPhone 7” and when I gave him an are-you-kidding-me raised eyebrow look and laughed hysterically, he erased it. He wrote down a few more reasonable requests for things like a Hot Wheels AI system, a hermit crab, and a Cozmo. Then he asked me what else he could include.
“Well,” I said,” you could ask for some things for other people. You could have donations made in your name to organizations you care about.”
We brainstormed some possible charities and organizations, and he thought for a while. He wrote some more, and after a few revised drafts, he had his final list. When I looked at the list, I saw “donations to the mosque we went to.”
The following week, I started working through his wish list and emailed the mosque to find out how to make the donation. Later that night, I got a phone call from one of the board members of the mosque. He wanted to thank my son in person. An hour later, his entire family — husband, wife, and three young kids — pulled into our driveway, and we welcomed them into our house. They thanked my son for giving one of his “Christmas wishes” to their mosque — a wish for which he wouldn’t see a direct benefit like he would from a toy or a video game. And then they did one of the most generous and thoughtful things I’ve ever experienced: They gave my son, someone whom they had never met, the Hot Wheels AI system that was also on his list.
My son and I stammered several thank-yous, and I choked back tears. We all talked for a little while, I wrote out a check to the mosque, and we said goodbye. While I hugged the woman and we both cried on my front steps — while our children looked on — I couldn’t help but think that this is what the cycle of generosity looks like. This is what it means to take care of each other.
“Every kid, if they really understand, will pick goodness, happiness, health for others over material possessions,” Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water, a nonprofit organization, and father of two, recently told The Washington Post. “I think it is the job of parents to give them the opportunity.”
And so that’s what I’m trying to do: give my children opportunities to choose goodness, happiness, and the well-being of others over “things.” We try to make giving and generosity part of our daily lives and our family philosophy, and it doesn’t hurt when friends and family are on the same page as well.
For instance, each year at Christmas my extended family draws names and part of the gift is always a donation to an organization the recipient cares about. Because children and adults are all included, the kids are tasked with considering causes or organizations their recipient cares about. My son drew his cousin’s name this year, and knowing that she cares about animals, he is going to make a donation to the animal shelter where they got their dog. I also try to take my kids with me when we’re dropping food off at the food pantry or the homeless shelter.
I’ll be honest, I worry a lot about whether I’m tending my kids’ natural big-heartedness. I worry that because they live a comfortable life (albeit one that is far from extravagant), they might not learn what it means to truly be grateful. But even more than gratitude, I want them to understand that there is a cycle of generosity. I want them to understand that generosity doesn’t mean charity or giving away what’s left over, but giving and receiving with an open heart. I want them to know what it means to take care of each other. I want them to want to take care of others.
Most of the time, I’m certain that I’m falling short of those goals. I feel overwhelmed by the awfulness and despair going on in the world right now, and I doubt whether anything I’m doing matters. But that night a few weeks ago, while I stood on my front steps crying and hugging a woman I had just met while our children looked on, I realized that maybe we’re doing OK. Because even though no one can do everything, we all can do something. Even if that something is showing our kids how to make the world more beautiful with their big hearts and generous spirits.