Whether you celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ or, as my Jewish friend Michael Josephson puts it, as a time that should bring forth good cheer and everyone’s better angels, chances are you associate the Christmas season with the spirit of love and giving. 

This year, when so many people are still suffering physically, psychologically, and economically from the pandemic — not to mention all the civil strife — it’s never been more important to foster the spirit of Christmas.

A few years ago, a national study of 18 to 23-year-olds in the US found that when asked to describe their vision of “the good life,” 54 percent said they would be happier if they “could buy more things.” Only a quarter spoke of wanting to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Ouch.

Few of us want to raise kids who are self-centered materialists. This Christmas, how can we help our kids think a little less about getting, and a little more about giving?

Here are 11 ways (most of which can be done at any time of the year):

1. Zoom out. Harvard’s “Making Caring Common” (mcc@gse.harvard.edu), the brainchild of psychology professor Rick Weissbourd and colleagues, suggests “zooming out” — pulling back — to get the big picture of what other people in our community, country, and world are going through. 

So pick up the paper or go online to find a story that conveys the scope of what’s happening as a result of Covid-19. Here, for example, is the headline of a front-page story in our city’s December 8 newspaper: “Pandemic Creates Newly Hungry Americans.”  Across the country, the article said:

Cars line up for miles and wait for hours for a box or bag of food. In big cities, people stand, waiting for blocks. Food banks say they’ve never seen anything like it. The crisis has hit the poor and people of color the hardest.

What can your family do? Invite everybody to chip in as generously as they can — from their allowance or job earnings — to a donation to a local food bank.

2. Zoom in. What needs are near at hand? Is there a brother or sister in the family who would appreciate a little more patience and kindness? Kids, how about asking Mom or Dad, “Is there anything I can do to help?” instead of waiting to be asked. What about your neighbor?  Do they need help getting groceries? Having their sidewalk shoveled? (Our neighbor Bruce has a snow blower and, God bless him, graciously clears our walk.)

3. Speak up. In the US context, that could take the form of a short letter to the President (White House, Washington DC 20500) and leaders of Congress (Speaker of the House Pelosi, Washington, DC 20515; Senate Majority Leader McConnell, Washington DC 20510) with an appeal something like this: “Please provide the economic help that people very much need — now and for as long as they need it!”

4. Help another family. A mom we know emailed friends about a family in their community with five kids and no money coming in because the father is suffering from a crippling depression and out of work. This mom asked a half-dozen other families if they could contribute anonymously to a fund to help this family over the hump while they seek long-term assistance from social services. 

5. Contribute to those Christmas Red Kettles. Dig a little deeper the next time you see one of those Salvation Army Red Kettles. Consider giving a $5, $10, or $20 instead of just loose change. (I used to ring the bell for one of those red kettles and was always lifted up by the shoppers who didn’t just pass by.  If truth be told, people who looked like they needed every penny were more dependable givers than some shoppers who looked more affluent.)

6. Help the homeless.  How about some cash or a meal for that homeless guy you’ve seen standing in the cold with the cardboard sign? If you can, stop and talk with them for a bit. I find most are grateful for the human contact. As a Christmas tradition, our younger son, his wife, and their seven kids set up a kind of assembly line around the dining room table to make lunches for homeless persons. Each contributed to the making of the sandwich, or added a bottle of water or piece of fruit, or decorated the lunch bag with a Christmas drawing and greeting. Then all headed to downtown San Diego to deliver them to homeless men and women.

7. Donate an animal. This is a gift that keeps on giving. Through Heifer International (heifer.org), you and the kids can give, for example, a flock of chickens ($20), a goat ($120), or a pig ($120) to a poor family in a third-world country. For an inspiring story of how a Heifer gift of a goat changed a little girl’s life in Uganda, read NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s column, “The Luckiest Girl.” Heifer has been doing this since 1944 and has helped more than 100 million people in 125 countries. Its website explains:

Giving an animal is like giving someone a small business, providing wool, milk, eggs and more. Animal donations can provide families a hand up, increasing access to medicine, school, food and a sustainable livelihood. Recipients must agree to “pass on the gift” by donating animal offspring, as well as sharing the skills and knowledge of animal husbandry and agricultural training with other impoverished families in the community.

World Vision, a Christian organization, does the same kind of wonderful work to help lift people out of poverty, and they offer even more choices of animals to donate (goats start at $85, and for $215 you can give a goal, 2 ducks, 3 rabbits, and 4 chickens).

8. Raise money for a worthy cause.  Early this November I was moved by the following email from a friend, Patrick Andersen, in Brooklyn, New York, who was running to raise funds for an orphanage in Haiti:

Today, I’ll be running a solo marathon in support of an orphanage and school, Foyer Espoir Les Enfants, in Haiti.   It was established 10 years ago in the wake of the earthquake that devastated Port of Prince. For this 7th year of fundraising, I believe running on my own matches the spirit of enduring through hardship that typifies the orphanage’s founder, Marie Jose Poux (hfhcf@yahoo.com), her staff, and the children.

While we’ve all been impacted by COVID, the impact on Haiti is far greater. This year, the school’s need for support of its 273 kids has grown significantly.  They are working to supply a meal a day to the kids of the school, as well as to children in the surrounding community. Sadly, that meal is often their only one. The yearly budget of $123,000 covers a staff of 10 for the orphanage and 20 for the school, along with food and supplies. They use every dollar. The school is also hoping to expand its offerings to include trade skills for the older students.

9. Create family traditions that promote giving and other acts of kindness.  In some families, all family members, children as well as adults, draw the name of another family member and then get a gift for that particular person. That way, everyone both gives and receives. 

When our kids were young, we had a tradition of making a “Christmas chain” for the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas. We cut out links from colored paper, one for every day of Advent.  We would then each take an equal number of links and write on each one a way that everyone in the family would show the spirit of Christmas on the day that particular link was torn from the chain. What each person wrote on their links was unknown to the rest of the family.  The links were then shuffled, made into a chain, and hung from a doorway. Sample links:

“Write a letter to someone who would like to hear from you.” 

“Pray for peace in the world.” 

“Do a good deed for someone in the neighborhood.”

“Do something kind for someone at school or work.”

10. Save so you can give. When I was a kid (in the 1950s), every year in January I started saving my earnings from selling greeting and Christmas cards, in a “Christmas Club” my mother helped me start in a local bank. By Christmas, I had saved up $25 — enough to buy a small gift of some sort, even a pair of socks — for everyone in the family, including my grandparents and aunts and uncles.   I remember that on Christmas day I got more pleasure from giving those gifts to family members than from the gifts I received.  

11. Give thanks.  If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday for you, consider, before opening presents, saying a family prayer of thanks, perhaps something like:

“Thank you, Jesus, for loving us enough to come into our world. Help us remember that we give gifts to each other today for the same reason, as an expression of our love.”

We become happy and find meaning in life in large part by lovingly contributing to the happiness of others. There’s no better time than Christmas for our children to experience that. 

Republished with permission from Dr Lickona’s Psychology Today blog, “Raising Kind Kids”.

Thomas Lickona

Thomas Lickona (www.thomaslickona.com) is the author of nine books on character development and directs the Center for the 4th and 5th...