Teaching to Give

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There’s an old joke about how a two-year-old views the world:

If I’m playing with it, it’s mine.

If I set it down and you pick it up, it’s mine.

If you walk into the room with it and I like it, it’s mine.

And so on. Because this mine-mine-mine mentality seems so fiercely ingrained in children, you have to wonder if we’re somehow genetically wired to be selfish. If that’s the case, could environmental factors help to scrub away our self-centered varnish?

In other words, can we be taught generosity?

We’re easing into a season where the needs of others are frequently brought to our attention. From the red-clad bell ringers in front of stores to the stack of end-of-year requests from non-profit organizations, we’re assaulted by reminders that many of our neighbors are suffering at a time when most of us are warm, comfy, and well-fed.

Some people have a giving nature, some can’t be bothered to spare a dime, but a large number are simply ambivalent, walking past without making eye contact and merely trying to get through their own day. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could nudge a significant number of people from the latter category into the first?

Every November for the past fourteen years our morning radio show has spent two full days raising money and awareness for the local food bank. We stay on the air for twelve hours each day, educating people about the need in our community, and imploring our listeners to open their hearts and their wallets. In the first year we raised forty thousand dollars; this year the tally was more than $1.15 million. That’s a substantial increase.

Driving home at the end of this year’s Charity Marathon, I pondered what might have caused such steady, impressive gains over time. A couple of things occurred to me.

One is the element of tradition. Through years of exposure to the cause, many of our listeners have come to understand how important their contribution is, and their donation has become an annual rite of passage, as traditional as their turkey dinner.

But perhaps more importantly, I sensed that young people have learned to give back by watching their parents. Kids who were teenagers during our first Charity Marathon in 1999 are now approaching thirty, and many are raising children of their own. They not only witnessed acts of charity growing up, they’re now exposing their own kids to the same sense of community.

One young man is particularly inspiring. He first came to our live broadcast at age seven and pushed five dollars of his allowance into the bucket. This year, as a senior in high school, he canvassed his school and community, and showed up with almost two thousand dollars for the food bank. He does it because he believes so strongly in the cause.

We have so much to be thankful for, and its important that we teach our children to appreciate all that they have. At the same time, it’s crucial to educate young people beyond reading, math, and science. Teaching them to volunteer and to give back are just as vital, for two reasons: it obviously helps our society, but it also weeds out their natural, inborn selfishness, making them into more responsible, more well-rounded adults.

Cycles can be bad – poverty, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, to name a few. But cycles also can be productive and enlightening. During this traditional season of love and sharing, we’d all be better served by passing on to our kids a true understanding of generosity; not just the physical act of giving money, but explaining what the need is all about and why it’s our responsibility to help.

Once they learn that, they’ll connect with the emotional element of giving back, which continues the cycle, eventually teaching more young people to share what’s “mine.”

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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