Years ago, my daughter Maria attended a middle school event at which Father Tom Lilly spoke. Father Tom, pastor then and now of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in South Anchorage, posed a question and promised the student with the right answer a $5 bill.
Maria won, but the award came with a caveat: you had to pass the $5 on and do good with it.
That $5 bill weighed on Maria. It would have been easy to drop the bill into the collection plate at Mass, or send it downtown to Catholic Social Services. But kids don’t think like that about giving.
Kids like to see the concrete results of their philanthropy. They want that personal touch. They want to see positive results.
This is asking a lot of one $5 bill.
Looking for a giving opportunity, Maria saw a man begging near our grocery store. She decided to buy him lunch. So we pulled the car over and Maria asked if he’d like lunch from the nearby McDonald’s. To our surprise, he said no, he’d just eaten. But he could go for a cup of coffee.
I thought of this incident the other day when a friend here in Omaha relayed a recent experience. She was at Target with her kids, and their behavior was driving her nuts, to the point where she said, “That’s it. We’re going home.” If you’re a parent, you’ve been there.
One of the kids had brought $5 from home to buy Pokemon cards. But, because of bad behavior, that didn’t happen. Mom drove out of the Target parking lot and no one was happy.
It was then they saw a man, with a woman and two children, holding a sign: “No job. Have kids. No food. Please help. God bless you.”
“Aren’t you going to stop Mom? We need to help,” came a voice from the back seat.
They stopped. Mom scrounged in her purse for what cash she had, and the child offered her Pokemon money. The man said he was trying to get his family back to California. Cars behind her started honking, so my friend pulled away.
“Why isn’t everyone stopping?” came a voice from the back seat.
My friend took full advantage of this teachable moment.
“We had a rich conversation about following the Gospel, giving to those in need, how we give gifts in total freedom without worrying about how others may spend it, how it would feel to be in their shoes.”
“So,” said one of the Target exiles, “that is what it means to be a disciple of Christ, right Mommy?”
Lovely. Lessons abound.
First, even though our culture encourages self-centeredness and selfishness in kids, as Christians we need to counteract that. Kids are ripe for Gospel lessons. Sharing and giving appeal to them, but, like Maria as a kid, they do like to see tangible results. Field trips to shelters and food kitchens are great. Chances to see and learn about our community’s rich diversity and economic disparity are important. Encouraging sacrifice — the Pokemon card money, so easily offered — is essential.
Young children learn by example. My friend who fled Target in exasperation is a very giving person. She’s involved in justice and charity work, and she’s the kind of person who easily says “yes.” That attitude is obviously influencing her kids.
Do we give our kids opportunities to see us engaging in charity, committed to justice? Do we tie it to discipleship? Would our kids describe us as sacrificial and generous? For better or worse, we’re leading by example.
The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.