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I’m always telling my kids that my job isn’t to be their friend or to make them happy. My main job is to keep them safe. I also want to raise them to be better people. That’s why I recently got them to have a charitable birthday party.
It was not easy to convince 8-year old twin boys to donate to a charity instead of receive gifts. But when some natural disasters struck, it was the perfect time to introduce the importance of giving back, especially in times of need.
Since my twins started preschool, their birthday parties have spiraled in size and scope. Because the boys are in separate classes in school, the number of guests has gotten large. Then there’s the question of what to do with all the loot. After each party, the boys would approach the pile of gifts with excitement, which quickly dwindled when they opened gift after gift that wasn’t “the thing” they wanted. Their disappointment mounted along with my concern when I realized I’d have to find places to store all this stuff.
Over the last few years, I’ve shown my boys the importance of charity. We feed the homeless at Christmas. They come with me when I give blood. And we always donate to their school’s food drive for the food pantry. I try to make them aware of the world around them and how fortunate they are.
Last spring, we talked about the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Before I knew it, they found videos on YouTube to get a sense of the destruction. We talked about how many kids lost everything. Their desire to help escalated when their school had a fundraiser for Japan, where the kids could pay to get a Cougar paw print tattoo. Both boys got tattoos and proudly informed me that their school of approximately 500 kids raised over $750 to donate to the Red Cross. Max wouldn’t let me wash off the tattoo on his cheek.
Then the tornadoes swept through the South and Midwest U.S. The boys were particularly moved by this devastating event because their friend’s mom is from the South. We talked about how kids had lost their homes. We tried to envision what it might feel like if they lost all of their toys and other treasured belongings.
Also that spring, the boys went to several “no-gift” birthday parties, asking you to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the food pantry. One birthday boy sent thank you notes showing how much food he’d delivered to the food pantry. Seeing the results further inspired my boys.
Seizing my opportunity, I planted the seed that they were going to have a charity birthday party. And when I say “planted the seed,” that’s a euphemism for bludgeoning them over the head with the idea. I kept talking about it like it was a done-deal, saying things like “when you have your charity birthday party…”.
They liked the idea of a charity birthday party, but it wasn’t so exciting when they realized they wouldn’t get presents. When they balked, I asked them: “What do you want that you don’t have?” They couldn’t think of anything specific, but they said they wanted some presents.
I reminded them of the disappointment they felt each year when they got piles of presents, but didn’t receive the item they were hoping for. I promised they wouldn’t have to write thank you notes for the donations. We agreed that they would get a few “big ticket items” from us and Grandma and Grandpa: new bikes, a Lego Kit, Wizard 101 Gift Cards, and a Yankees Game on their actual birthday (which happened to be the day Derek Jeter hit his 3,000th hit!). In the end, because we had to subsidize the gifts, the party cost a little more than a typical birthday party.
Finally, they agreed to the deal. Next we had to select the charity. I strongly suggested they donate to the Red Cross to aid the victims of Japan’s earthquake and the tornados in the South. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t realize that the Red Cross allows you to donate money in honor of someone on their web site, so I didn’t instruct our guests to do that. We believe our boys contributed a few hundred dollars but we don’t know for sure and they did not get recognized for most of the donations. That was a bit anticlimactic and I think they would have liked to see what they’d done.
I would recommend letting your kids choose the charity and make it a cause they believe in. If possible, pick a charity that will let you know how much was donated in your child’s name so they can feel pride and ownership about how much money they raised.
In keeping with the idea of charitable contributions, we decided to make the food and party favors less elaborate. I baked cupcakes and we gave out home-baked (peanut-free) treats in eco-friendly goodie bags. I let them choose the venue and they opted for a rock-climbing party at a nearby indoor rock climbing facility.
A good time was had by all. For the most part, I don’t think the boys really missed the pile of presents. I know that my boys learned the valuable lesson that it feels good to do good and that they can make a difference in the world.
Note: the names of the author’s kids in this story have been changed.