A Story of Good Will

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    Ah, December. The month when fall rounds the corner, stubs its toe on a discarded turkey bone, and careens towards winter. The month when autumn’s fiery foliage dims to dull brown husks collecting on our lawns and in our gutters. The month when sweet solstice twilight is washed away by million-watt tacky light tours.

    That’s right, parents, the holiday season is upon us.

    Our family’s particular flavor of holiday indulgence is Christmas, and by the time our oldest son, Ben, was two, we faced a stark reality: Christmas transformed our agreeable toddler into an ankle-biting Caligula, demented by the orgiastic gluttony of holiday toys.

    It’s a holiday dilemma familiar to many parents. On the one hand, we are called to a deeper connection with our fellow man. Peace on earth, blah blah blah. On the other hand, we are called to a deeper connection with our shopping mall. Shop ‘til you drop, buy, buy, buy!

    Immediately upon becoming parents, we found ourselves in thrall to the Christmas consumption machine. Our stockings were hung by the fire with toggle bolts to keep their engorged mass from ripping the drywall from the studs. Our Christmas tree was perched precariously atop a mound of loot sent from our relatives to our precious offspring.

    Which is why, as we stared into the barrel of our third Christmas as parents, we decided it was time to stop the madness. Well, okay. What we actually decided was to make a futile gesture in defiance of the madness.

    My idea – and wholly original to me, I am certain – was to do a pre-Christmas toy clean-out. Ben and I would go through his toys and decide – together – which toys he was going to give away to children less fortunate than us.

    If you have come to this page seeking a nugget of parenting advice, here it is: This has got to be one of the dumbest parenting ideas ever concocted. Parting with a few unloved belongings in preparation for a flood of new goodies coming your way? I’m a real Dr. Spock, I am.

    Ben, just like your child, and yours, and yes, there in the back row, even yours, is bright and thoughtful. He accepted the idea without complaint. Not enthusiastic, but willing. A great start!

    We went through his toys one by one. As we considered them, I worked hard to keep the context front and center.

    “Did you know there are needy children who have no toys?” I asked as we appraised a stuffed animal of indeterminate provenance. I had read somewhere that parents should teach their children to feel empathy, so I added, “Can you imagine having no toys?”

    He dutifully placed the stuffed animal into the donate pile.

    We mulled over a wooden puzzle. I said, “Not all families are as fortunate as ours.” He handed the puzzle over.

    “Wow!” I beamed at him. “You don’t know how happy this will make some needy child!”

    And so on and so forth, Ben stoically watching his toy collection dwindle.

    By the end, we had a sizeable collection of toys in the donate pile. Yes, many of them were things he had never much played with, but some of them were toys he valued, and I thought his decisions had been very generous, for which I lavished him with praise. Positive reinforcement! I had read that page in the parenting handbook, as well.

    “Way to go, Buddy!” I said, giving him a big hug. “That is so generous of you. These toys are going to make some needy children very happy this holiday season.”

    He nodded in what I interpreted to be a sage fashion.

    As the final act in my charitable lesson, I thought it was important that Ben go with me to the second-hand store to drop the toys off. I wanted him to see that they were actually going somewhere, and not disappearing into the ether.

    We arrived to find the donation door closed for the afternoon. The store, however, was open, so we ducked inside to find an employee who could receive the toys.

    It was December 23. The store was filled with people shopping for Christmas. We walked in. My hands were full of two large bags of toys. No sooner had we stepped into the throng of shoppers than Ben broke his silence.

    “We’re here for the needy!” he proclaimed in a thunderous voice that sounded for all the world as if my three-year-old had recently swallowed a holy-rolling revivalist. “We have toys for the needy!”

    The store, which seconds before had been a humming hive of activity, went eerily silent. Fifty pairs of inquiring eyes turned our way.

    “Where are the needy?”

    Making matters worse (for me, that is) was that Ben, being three, was hidden among the racks of clothing that surrounded us. I was the only visible source of this insistent announcement.

    “Needy children, we’ve got your toys!”

    Well, parents, what would you do?

    I chose the courageous response. I dropped the toys like toxic assets, grabbed my pint-sized megaphone by the wrist, and fled.

    Ben is thirteen now, and all early returns indicate that his spirit has abundant reserves of benevolence and generosity. The biggest hitch in that long-ago lesson, it turns out, was his father. He was only doing what I had asked him to do, using the same words I had taught him to use.

    We’ve both grown a lot since then.