They shall not appear before the Lord empty handed; every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessings of the Lord your God which he has given you.
– Deuteronomy 16:16-17
We are an indulgent society. If we want something, we get it. We love receiving gifts—gifts for birthdays, gifts for holidays, gifts for jobs well done, and even gifts for no reason whatsoever. Sometimes, we even indulge by buying ourselves gifts! Let’s face it—if we want something, we will usually get it. Unfortunately, this attitude rubs off on our children. So, how do we teach our children to give generously and receive humbly in an age of materialism? How do we let them experience the grace that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ described when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35)?
The first step is to make giving an important part of your family life. Modeling is critical—you can teach more with actions than with words. Lactantius, an early father of our church wrote, “Things that parents teach their children cannot have any weight unless they are the first to practice them.” Let your children see you giving to others. Let them see the joy it brings you. Let them become involved in giving in any way they are able from the time they are very young. Support charities by giving of your time, talents, and treasures as you are able. As your children grow, let them help you decide ways to give.
Remind your children that there are no small gifts—to illustrate this read the Gospel lesson of the widow’s mite to them (Luke 21:1-4). She had nothing, but gave all for God. Even though her donation seemed insignificant next to the others, it was more significant to Christ because, “she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
Giving isn’t just charity—we regularly give to our loved ones for various occasions. Involve your children in buying presents or have them make gifts for them. The most treasured gift doesn’t need to be expensive but it should be something that has been given some thought. If your children are buying a gift, only give them a certain amount to spend. Should the gift they choose cost more, have them earn the money through helping out around the house. Depending on their age, you may want to have them earn all of the money for the gift.
Just as important as teaching your children about giving, is conveying the importance of proper receiving. It is not wrong for children to want gifts, nor is it wrong for them to accept gifts. However, there are a few helpful things to consider. First, just because your child wants something and you can afford it, doesn’t necessarily mean they should get it. Learning that what they want isn’t always what they need is an essential part of maturation. Children also need to learn that they can’t have everything immediately. If the item is appropriate for them to have, they can save their money if they really want it. In the process, they will learn vital lesson about money and its value. Research has shown that children who get everything they want have a higher incidence of antisocial behaviors as they grow into teenagers and adults (for more on this topic, read the book Too Much of a Good Thing by Dan Kindlon). When your children receive presents, teach them to be grateful for them by sending thank-you notes—or if they are very young, draw thank-you pictures. It is necessary for them to understand that a special thing has been done for them.
The final, but most important, thing for your children to understand is that everything we have has been given to us by God. He entrusted us with these things so that we can be good stewards of them. To be a good steward means we use our gifts in a way that would please God. A great story to illustrate this point to your children is The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Remember, children love to give—think about all the drawings or trinkets made in school that your child has proudly presented to you. If we use our children’s natural inclinations toward giving and make a conscious effort to foster this, they will, as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Clean House - Periodically go through your house as a family and get rid of things you are no longer using—clothes, toys, etc. As a family, take these items and donate them to a local charity. See the quote from St. Basil also found on this page for inspiration.
- Give Thanks - Always have thank-you notes handy and make a point to use them. If your child is old enough to write their own, take them to pick out their own stationary to write thank-you notes or have them make their own.
- Gift Certificates - Get modestly priced gift certificates from local restaurants or fast food chains ($2-$5 dollar amounts) and carry them with you to hand out to homeless people asking for money. In this way, you can assure you are helping them to get a good meal and responding the Jesus Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself. If you want to know who your neighbor is, read The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
- Create or Bake - Consider making gifts for people that you love. Create original Christmas ornaments to give to family members. You can visit a craft store for tons of ideas—you don’t need to be an artist to make something nice. Consider making cookies or other goodies to give out. Deliver them as a family whenever possible.
- Plan a “Giving Party” - Invite your family and friends over and ask them to bring a donation of some sort (toys, canned food, clothing, etc.). For a great idea, see the Family Activity section on this page.
As we head into this Christmas season, we challenge you to refocus your priorities. Put the attention on the Birth of Christ—preparing your children for the Feast of the Nativity rather than feasting on gifts. Give to the Lord by fasting, praying, and giving alms. Remember and teach your children that we have already received the greatest gift—Jesus Christ! The question we need to ask is what are we going to give Him?
Melissa Tsongranis is the associate director for The Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.