My daughter clutched her piggy bank tightly as we walked into the store. She must be having second thoughts, I thought. I’m a terrible parent. How are empathy and compassion this hard to teach to a 5-year-old? How do you teach a child who has every opportunity and never goes without food, clothes, or toys that this isn’t the norm, especially 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 12 that I truly realized how blessed I was. It was there I saw where the canned goods, old clothing, and monetary donations went. I was shocked to see elderly people who could barely walk with no coat 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 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.
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? One of the fundamental things Jesus taught was that of empathy and helping 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 5-year-old was at the age when she was starting to think that asking for a ton of Christmas gifts was normal. At the place where halfway through this crazy year, I gave in and started saying yes to everything because I was too tired to fight. In a year when the norm is staying six 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 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?
First, she 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.” Then I showed her the toys I had already purchased for them 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 we’d go to the store.
So, there we were, standing in Target. She started pointing out the toys she wanted. I reminded her we weren’t there for her. I tried to instill 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 toward 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 was a math lesson as well) and she decided on one big Barbie, a baby doll, and a soccer ball set.
As we stood in line to pay, she 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,” she said.
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 see those children receive the presents, but one day she will. I know 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.