A Little Lesson in Giving

It’s hard not to love December, a time of year flavored with festive undertones. Holiday music plays continuously on the radio. The spirit of giving is in the air. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, this month tends to bring out the best in people.

I feel a certain responsibility to teach my children this season is about more than piles of gifts under the tree. Kids often fail to appreciate the notion of giving. But as my daughter recently discovered, it can feel even better than receiving.

3525178_origThe Salvation Army is a charity known for its fundraising this time of year. Bell-ringing volunteers collect pocket change from pedestrians in areas with heavy foot traffic. In my neighborhood, one is stationed outside our supermarket throughout the season.

As we hurried toward the store’s entrance earlier this month, I emptied my change purse into my daughter’s hand so she could drop the coins in the collection kettle. The volunteer, who had braved the elements with a smile and a Santa-like beard and hat, boomed an enthusiastic thank you before he launched into a cheery Christmas carol.

“My gosh, Mom,” she said. “Isn’t that man freezing?”

Of course he was. Chicago winters are brutally cold. On this particular day the temperature hovered around 20F (-7C). Factor in the wind chill and it was well below zero.

We hustled through the store picking up our essentials, but the guy outside never left my mind. How long had he been standing there? Did he come inside the store now and then to thaw his frozen fingers? How many people had breezed right by without so much as a glance in his direction?

What could I do to show appreciation for his thankless efforts?

I handed my daughter a 5-dollar bill and told her to pick up a hot chocolate at the Starbucks counter.starbuckswinterdrink

“But don’t drink it,” I ordered, and her grin fell into a familiar teenaged scowl.

When we stepped back out in the arctic air, I lifted my chin in the Salvation Army man’s direction. Her expression softened, and I could see she understood. She extended the paper cup toward him, and his eyes sparkled above the bushy costume beard.

“A nice hot chocolate for you,” I said. “Happy Holidays.”

He nodded a thank you through his buoyant caroling, never missing a beat. It was a small gesture on our part, but his gratitude was evident.

“That was cool, Mom,” my daughter said as we backed out of our parking space. “We should do that every time we go to the store.”

I smiled to myself and peered in the rear view mirror at the man, his bell in one hand, the other wrapped firmly around his warm Starbucks cup. He was still singing.

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34 responses to “A Little Lesson in Giving

  1. It’s important to teach children that charity is not reserved only for emergencies. You demonstrated to your daughter that reaching out to others in need is a way of life, rather than a moment in time when a catastrophic disaster occurs. Well done, Gwen! Your beliefs concerning the spirit of giving is a perfect gift to give your daughter.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Jill. Sometimes learning by doing is the best way to teach. The best was the emotional evolution – when she thought the drink was a treat for her, the subsequent attitude when I told her to abstain, and finally her reaction as we drove away. I felt a wonderful two-fold satisfaction in doing something nice and providing a lesson at the same time.

    • I like that point. It’s a very good one. Reaching out, connecting, appreciating, and thinking about what others might really appreciate.

  2. Brilliant! Without any lecturing on your part, your daughter understood. What a great lesson Gwen – and so understated.

  3. That was very kind. These lessons are so important for our children. The memory of that day and the look on his face is something that she will carry with her always. Because of it, she’ll be more apt to helping others also. Great job on teaching that lesson.

  4. The smallest acts can bring such joy, to both the receiver and the giver. Thanks for reminding us all that it doesn’t take much to do these things. Just think of how much better we could make the world if we all did a similar act today? :) (And this from a cynic like me!)

    • You’re so funny Carrie – I don’t see you as a cynic at all. I love your wry humor. You’ve given me an idea, though – maybe one random act of kindness per day is a good rule to live by.

      • Maybe I’m more a pragmatist than a cynic. I still have a soft core, I guess. :)

        I have to chauffeur my kids around all week (the oldest has finals, different times, different days). Does that count as random acts of kindness, I wonder?…

  5. What a wonderful moment. The image and sound of that last line is (as is the entire essay) so poignant. I agree, teaching our children love, empathy, kindness, and generosity is important in a world that grows ever smaller but ever growing in need. Those thoughtful gestures, even ones that are seemingly insignificant do matter and remind us of the human spirit and its ability to love. Those gestures add up and soon become ways of life. What a gift!

  6. Aw that’s a great act of kindness and how wonderful that your daughter wants to keep it going. :)

  7. Wow, what an awesome mom you are. It’s the little things like this that make a huge difference in someone’s day.

    • Awesome I’m not, Phillip, but thank you. I was the recipient of a small act of kindness one day this fall and you’re right, the little things can make can indeed make a big difference in someone’s day.

  8. During the hustle and bustle of this season, it is so easy to forget the real meaning of the holiday. I am sure that your daughter will remember this long after the event. Thanks for setting a good example and being so thoughtful. It’s the little things that matter.

  9. What a gem of a story, and beautifully told. The smallest gestures can be the kindest ones – good on you x

  10. Hi Gwen. I found you on Carrie’s blog. I love this story. So glad you did this with your daughter. A great idea for both her and the Santa-man. I’m from Chicago, but where I moved to, I’d have to buy our Salvation Army guy a frozen smoothie. I’m in Florida now. I miss my home town a lot, except when it’s as frigid as you’ve described here. Thanks for sharing this story.

  11. That’s so nice! This brought tears to my eyes. I love hearing stories like this and it’s great that you’re teaching your daughter to think of others too.

  12. That was such a wonderful thing for you to do. And there’s no better way to teach children than leading by example. Your daughter’s lucky to have such a good role model!

  13. Hi Gwen we are new to your blog by way of mutual blogging friend, Carrie Rubin & loved the Holiday Post. What an incredible message to send to the world that the little acts of human kindness can mean so much! Not many would think to do that. Would consider the poor man braving the frigid temperatures to bring about relief to those in need. I was fortunate enough to belong to one of those incredible men. My father, was a licensed minsister & Vice President of the Gideons. Four years before he passed away, he stood in front of the local Walmart ringing his bell to collect for charity. These merciful angels get few thank you’s, are often overlooked & sometimes even harrassed! So to you, I say thank you from a bell-ringers daughter as it warms my heart to know that for every unkind act there’s someone who will show an act of kindness! Merry Christmas to you & yours! Sharing this now to spread the good will! :)

  14. Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing a real life story so intimately connected to the theme. Merciful angels is a great way to phrase what the bell-ringers do. Happy holidays to you and your family.

  15. LOVE this story! Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!

  16. What a beautiful lesson. This is something your daughter and your readers will carry with them. Kindness is truly contagious.

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