Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Difficulty of Giving and Teaching to Give

Charles throws me for a loop every single day.  Navigating life as a parent has called into question all my beliefs, values, and actions in a way I could never have imagined before he was here.  It’s not just the sense that he is always watching, it’s the knowledge that he is always listening and that he remembers and that even those things aren’t straightforward: his four-year-old filter, his undeveloped perspective on the world, is interpreting my actions and words in ways I am often unprepared for.


Yesterday I took away the books.  And I thought he understood that the books were going in the garage for a day because he wasn’t following directions and was throwing fits and acting in inappropriate ways.  I guess I still think that he understands this because this morning he told me that he was going to follow directions and get dressed when he was asked and “be good” so that he could have all of his books back.  He gets it, the concept of consequences, and that’s rewarding to me, that I have held my ground and affected changes in his behavior for the better.


But Charles is also a worrier, like me.  It’s a trait I had hoped he wouldn’t inherit or learn from me, but whatever control I had over that I seem to have lost already.  I prefer action when I see something that needs fixing, so I am hereby vowing to myself to worry less in front of the kids, but I don’t know that that will change the way Charles has developed.  For all he is an excited, active kid who appears to want to barrel through life at top speed, he ruminates over things to an extent that is only now becoming clear, and I’m not sure what to do about it.


Before Christmas, Tony, Charles, and I went through all of the toys in the house.  We organized and moved them, designating a scant few for donation to our local Tubs for Kids program (serving foster youth and needy families in Skagit County with diapers as well as used clothing, toys, and gear).  Most of what we gave away were stuffed animals, as these are toys that have never much interested Charles, and we had so, so many of them.  Including a rhinoceros that, to my knowledge, Charles had never touched, and a turtle that made a noise when his hand was pushed, but which was not played with, either.  Also a whole bunch of other stuff.  We talked with Charles about how other children don’t have any toys at all, and some of them will not be getting Christmas presents this year, so he could give these toys that he didn’t play with to someone who needs them to love.  And that he would be getting new! toys! at Christmas.  And, for goodness’ sake, we did not give away ALL the toys; we kept many stuffed animals and loads of cars and all the blocks and books and we are still overrun with toys.


When I took away the books yesterday, Charles broke down sobbing – not the angry tears of a foiled kid, but the heavy sobs of a broken heart.  I cuddled him and when he could talk, he told me that he didn’t want to give his turtle and rhinoceros away to other kids, that they were his and he loved them and missed them.  And then my heart shattered.  I found out this morning that he then had a very serious conversation with the director at his daycare center after he arrived at school.  “Miss M, I have something to tell you.  My brother Jamie and I had a very bad, terrible morning.  My mom and dad took away my toys and gave them to other kids who don’t have toys and now I don’t have my rhinoceros and my turtle.”


Oh, baby.


Of course, I would never have given away toys that I thought Charles loved or was attached to in any way.  But that did not appear to be the case and somehow I have not explained or modeled the concept of “giving” to him very well.  I want him to grow up happy to give and happy to help others, not resentful that his mom and dad took away his toys when he was little to give to someone else.  To him, the “someone else” is abstract, and I’m sure he can’t conceptualize their need at all.  And he has been thinking about this, worrying about this for weeks.  Probably not continuously, but still.


Oh, what do I do?  Tonight, after school, maybe over ice cream, we’ll talk more.  And then I’m going to try to involve him, at least a little, when I next give away my clothes or things to charity.


But don’t for one minute think that I don’t feel cheated!  Websites and books full of advice on how to parent children give all sorts of examples about involving your children in the giving process from a young age, about going through their toys with them to cull the herd, so to speak, and instill a sense of giving in them by donating unwanted toys.  Never once have I seen mentioned that age four might be too young to understand need or that the four-year-old isn’t being punished by having his toys taken away.  Am I the bad parent here?  Or did we just start too young on a serious subject?


Margarita Primavera said...

I'm not sure when my parents started doing this, but ever since I can remember, at the beginning of December, my brother and I had to go through our things and choose things we wanted to give away to make room for the things we were asking for Christmas (toys, books, and clothes). I don't remember feeling any resentment, but it probably wasn't easy at the beginning, though one of the things that I remember is the excitement of thinking of what we were potentially going to get later. Then we would make treat bags (mostly candy & chocolate) and (and I'm sure this is made a big difference) take everything to a local orphanage. This made it so it wasn't an abstract concept - we actually went and saw who the things were going to and what a difference those things made.
I think the teaching to give is a very important lesson. I know I want Nico to grow up doing some kind of version of what I did growing up -- it not only helps with the learning to give, but also to let go of material things (a lesson that is sometimes still hard to remember as we get older). It's definitely interesting to start thinking of ways to introduce these lessons and make sure that they don't feel like they're being punished.

Sarah said...

We do the same thing with Claire and Jack. Claire is getting better at letting go. Jack insists that he likes everything he has, so I pick out the things myself. It may be kind of painful, but it's a safe place to experience loss, even if it's just material things. I had to tell Claire the other day that things don't make us happy. It's abstract at her age, but hopefully seeing it as part of our lifestyle will help it sink in. You're a great parent, keep it up.