Like many parents, my husband and I wanted to make this Christmas season meaningful for our kids. As in years past, we decided that a service project would help them appreciate the true spirit of Christmas and get them to focus on something other than gifts. This year, though, we chose several projects rather than one, and decided to cut back the amount we usually spend on gifts for our kids in order to afford to give more.
I was a little concerned how well this would go over, but it turns out I shouldn’t have been. In fact, the benefits far outweighed any hassle or complaining, and, as usually happens when serving, we got some unexpected benefits as well. Let me offer a few tips that worked well for us this year and in years past that might help your own planning:
1. Choose a hands-on project.
Cutting back on presents and telling the kids the money is going to a good cause is great, but it’s even better when they are physically involved. As we were shopping to fill stockings with requested items for a homeless shelter, it dawned on my children that there are people who are grateful for everyday items they take for granted such as soap, toothpaste, socks and gloves.
2. If you do give money, ask the kids to contribute some of their own.
We pay a tithe to our church, and every year we go in and talk to our church leaders about it. This year we brought the kids, who paid their own tithe on the money they’d earned this year, and we talked about what we’d given. Our bishop told us the good the money does and the spiritual rewards. The kids walked out of that meeting feeling good. In my daughter’s prayer that night, she said she was thankful that we could give money to those in need.
3. Have the kids give a significant amount of time.
We had a few grumblings about a planned four-hour shift at a Women and Childrens’ Shelter wrapping gifts, but once we got there and got started, the kids began to have fun (even the grumbliest of the grumblers) and began talking about what it would mean to a homeless woman to get a warm pair of sweats and a new watch from a stranger on Christmas morning. It warmed my heart (even though we were in a freezing warehouse) when we finished early and everyone was disappointed there wasn’t more to do. This is the project that required the most sacrifice, a Saturday afternoon on the first day of Winter break, yet it was the favorite by far.
The unexpected benefits? We had a lot of fun together. My husband’s oldest son, who usually doesn’t participate in our weekly Monday night family gatherings, was happy to participate on a night when we did a project. My daughter, who already does a lot of community service through school and church programs, spent time serving with her brothers in a context where they weren’t quite as annoying as usual. It gave us the opportunity to discuss important subjects like taking blessings for granted, serving other people and compassion.
Planning and doing these projects took some time and effort on my part during a crazy-making time of year, I wasn’t sure it was going to make any difference, and there will still be the inevitable gluttony surrounding the opening of gifts, but it was all worth it when my twelve-year-old son said, “You know, I’m not really that into getting presents this year. I’m looking forward to the service projects a lot more.”