In memory of Johnny Carson’s wonderful character, Carnac, I offer these three answers to an unknown question: the holidays, being honorees of a community agency, and teaching kids to be generous. The question is: What role does charity play in our family? While this lacks the humor of a typical Carnac inquiry and response, it provides a lead-in to a very important issue that is largely ignored by most of us.
The topic was brought to mind because my wife, Ellen, and I are about to be honored by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston at their annual gala for twenty years of significant personal and financial contributions. We have never been recognized for our community service or our charitable gifts before, even though it has been an important part of our lives for many years. This led to many conversations, including the question of how our children (ages 37 and 40) would participate in the event.
In turn, it made us realize that we have never really talked to our children about their views on charity and what role it plays in their lives. That realization caught me by surprise because I have always viewed myself as having a very close relationship to my sons and thought that over the years we have discussed most issues of importance. On the flip side of that, while our children are aware of our community activities, I don’t think we have had a meaningful conversation with them about why this is so important to us.
Neither Ellen nor I came from charitable families. While Ellen was actively involved with community service in her early adult years, as her career blossomed, she became much less involved on a personal level but always remained committed on a financial level. Recently, she has been significantly increasing her personal involvement again. I, on the other hand, was a latecomer to the world of community service, entering actively in my 40s.
This raised a few questions. How did two people who were not taught the value of community service during their formative years become so committed to it as adults? Had we ever installed those values in our children? Why haven’t we talked to our children about this topic?
As with any other personality characteristic or set of values, one quickly realizes that it is not simply about teachings but also about inborn tendencies. You quickly recognize the nature-nurture conflict. Clearly both contribute as we look at siblings and often see dramatic differences in behavior or beliefs. But if we leave out the teaching part, then we are letting others have a greater influence or, perhaps, just leaving it to chance. Certainly, as parents, we want to find ways to provide guidelines for our children.
This is, of course, a timely issue. For many years, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the materialism of the holidays of Christmas and Chanukah. Meanwhile, children’s birthday parties, confirmations, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, kindergarten graduations and numerous other child-oriented events have become grossly out of control in terms of the money spent and the loss of the real purpose and meaning of these events. Meanwhile, charitable giving is down and volunteerism has diminished (largely because the traditional resource of at-home mothers has greatly diminished). Yet I have also observed a couple of generations of teenagers becoming active in walks for hunger and cancer and other similar events, something that was a rarity for teens in the more distant past.
So the data on the current role of charity in families seems to be mixed. There has been much publicity about families volunteering to serve meals at homeless shelters on Thanksgiving and Christmas. While this is an excellent step, my limited conversations with families doing this suggests it is too often an isolated aspect of family life rather than reflective of a deeper, year-round commitment. Of course, most families, understandably, complain they don’t have enough time for each other, no less others outside the home. It is well-documented that today’s families are much more isolated from one another and their communities than those of earlier generations.
As Robert Putnam described in his excellent book, Bowling Alone,
“For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.” (p. 27)
It is no coincidence that we appear to be living through a period of time when those responsible to provide leadership and model desired behaviors, whether politicians, clergy, corporate executives or athletes, have been an exaggerated source of constant disappointment, leaving a trail of criminal, immoral, unethical, and uncaring behavior that is slowly but surely creating a groundswell of anger among the people. I hope a level of excess has been reached that begins to signal a turn of that tide before we become a morally bankrupt society. And there is no better place to start that groundswell than in our own homes, by our own behavior as parents, and the messages that we not only share with our children but demonstrate by our own actions.
So while the holidays provide an excellent opportunity to demonstrate caring for others and involvement with the community, it needs to be part of a larger commitment to move away from the “I want… I need… I’m first” mentality and find simple, basic ways to show a genuine concern for the needs of others without tabulating the return on your investment. Turn birthday parties back into simple celebrations of a new year of your child’s life and focus at least some of the activities and gift-giving toward charitable causes.
Do the same for the other celebratory events in your children’s lives but, as I noted, you also need to do it in your lives, as the parents, if you expect it of your children. Discuss community service in your family and come up with ideas about how it can be expressed as part of your family’s life: instead of having yard sales, how about donating still-usable items to charity; consider having the entire family commit to a walk for hunger or a medical problem; choose a community organization or a particular group within the community (the elderly or people with special needs) that everyone in the family can agree upon as a focus for the family and then figure out how each member will be involved.