It is better to give than receive…right?

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Everyone knows that it should be better to give than to receive but how exactly does that work?  And what if it sure does feel fun to receive?  And how in the world am I supposed to teach my children that principle when every single commercial on TV prompts them to tell me that they don’t have that, or so and so has this and we don’t, or maybe that thing could be another toy that could be a surprise on Christmas morning.  Hmm, better to give than to receive right?  Well saying it and doing it are two totally differently things.  As in any parenting strategy, if at first you don’t succeed try and try again.

My husband and I really wanted to instill this giving principle in our young boys, especially our 4 year old.  He was at an age where he could understand that there were little boys just like him who might not get any Christmas presents.  We didn’t want to scare him or guilt him into giving, we just wanted to make him aware that even though we don’t have all the newest toys or the best of such and such, we are certainly blessed and can afford to give to those who are less fortunate.  So off we went. To the happiest place on earth: Target.

We went with our list for a young boy in need of gifts.  The limit was $25 and before you could purchase the child a toy you had to get him what he needed: school supplies.  Then, with whatever was leftover you could purchase a gift.  There were explicit instructions to not go over the dollar amount because it wouldn’t be fair to the other children who would also be receiving gifts from adoptive families who stuck to the rules.  Wow, what a reality check.  As we walked down the school supply aisle I couldn’t believe that new pencils and markers would be this child’s Christmas gifts…and he would most likely be very excited about this.  Our son understood that he needed these things to go to school and he couldn’t afford to get them on his own.  I could see the wheels turning in his head and knew we would most likely have to answer some questions, we just didn’t know how challenging they would be to answer: “We already have markers at our house, why doesn’t his Mommy just buy him markers if he needs them?”

I saw what was happening as he processed right in front of me.  First, he was personalizing the situation: realizing that we had markers at our house and he was most likely with me when we were at Target for the 3rd time one week and I threw in yet another set of markers into the back of the cart on an impulse because we needed tropical colors as well as basic.  We didn’t have to budget for the markers and we didn’t even really need them, I just got them to add to our collection of art supplies and my son didn’t even have to ask. Second, he was rationalizing; if his Mommy bought his markers why couldn’t this other boy’s Mommy do the same?  “Well buddy, his Mama might not have enough money right now and we can help by getting him these school supplies.”  Our son was surprisingly content with this answer.  He was also surprisingly unselfish as we gathered a folder, markers, pencils, a notebook and some other things that were on the list.  I felt so proud of myself…he was getting it, and we were making a difference in someone else’s life.  It really was better to give than receive!  Then we headed to the toy aisle.

Yeah, my pride was about to be kicked to the curb.  4-year-old boys aren’t tempted when we are talking about notebooks and markers.  We could buy out the whole store and he wouldn’t think twice about it.  But all of a sudden we were about to buy something he wanted and liked and it wasn’t for him.  It’s better to give than receive, even if it means enduring a temper tantrum in the middle of Target.  Right? Right.

The Lego aisle at Target beckons to 4-year-old boys like the shoe department at Nordstrom does to his Mama.  I know where it is from any location in the store.  I know what aisle precedes it and if somehow we have missed a turn in menswear and need to make a quick left to get back to the promised land of new shoes.  Legos in Target are kind of the same way to 4-year-old boys.  “Are we going to the toy section?!” exclaimed my son as we passed the outdoor equipment.   The minute we turned down the aisle, I realized this was not going to be as easy as markers.  “Oh Mama, I don’t have that one…” “ Mom, this one is super cool it has Lightning McQueen in it!”  I had prepped my son and gently reminded him again, “Remember buddy we aren’t shopping for you right now, this gift is for the little boy who may not get any Christmas gifts.”  “But Mom, we already got him markers!”

Not my proudest parenting moment there. I reminded him that those were things he needed for school and now we were able to get him something that he wanted, something he might not get otherwise.  My son wasn’t buying my sell.  These were all things that my son wanted as well.  The decibel level of his whining increased with every box we looked over.  The tears began to pour from his eyes as we made our selection and started toward the check out.  “ I want a new Lego set!  I want to have it too! It’s not fair, why are you buying that boy a present and not me?  You should buy me gifts! Moooooooommmm, this is not fair!”  And the clincher: “You are a mean Mama!”

At this point it was not fun to be giving and not receiving, especially for a 4 year old.  It was also not fun for his Mama.  Everything in me wanted to grab a second box of Legos and get him a set too.  I wanted to rationalize back to him that he would be getting presents from us, and grandparents, and aunts and uncles.  I wanted him to understand the bigger picture here.  I wanted him to stop whining and throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of Target. I wanted him to all of a sudden not be a 4-year-old boy but a 24 year old who got the bigger picture of what we were doing.  I had forgotten that if I want to raise a child who thinks of others before themselves and has a giving heart I have to instill that in him.  I have to teach him how, and lower my expectations, and endure a public tantrum all in the name of a lesson learned.  And most likely I have to repeat that process all over again, more than once a year, before he really starts to get what we are doing.

With tears and pleas for his own set of legos we checked out and made our way to the car.  I was exhausted and embarrassed and feeling like a total failure in the reason for the season department.  But you know what? It was worth it.  Not because I proved something or radically changed his little heart but because we did something that was temporarily uncomfortable in order to begin to lay the groundwork for what will hopefully be permanently foundational.  I put aside what other patrons in Target thought of me and even what my son thought of me for a brief moment in order to bring joy to a child who might not have any this Christmas.  If this is the price I pay for a teachable moment then I will trust that this investment will indeed pay off in the long run.  After all isn’t that how parenting works?  In child rearing there is no deposit that will guarantee a good outcome.  We trust and hope and pray that we are indeed doing the right thing.  The right thing on this day was to think for a little boy who might not have anyone thinking for him.  Despite its uncomfortable-ness and the momentary heartache of my own child, I am convinced that it really is better to give than to receive.  At Christmas and always. 

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Tracy Carson is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor, a wife to her Prince Charming whom she has been married to for 10 years and a Mom of two precious boys, 5 and 3. Tracy has a passion for helping women feel beautiful inside and out and works hard in her faith based counseling practice, Professional Counseling Associates, (www.pcaaz.com) specializing in the treatment of women’s issues: especially anxiety, development, and eating disorders and counts it a privilege to come alongside of women as they overcome the stress that can come with new life transitions. When Tracy is not in her professional role, you can probably find her out running or trying to figure out how to incorporate the newest fashion trends into her wardrobe. Follow her on twitter @tkcarson

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