The Generosity Gene

Sometimes I catch myself in the middle of our weekend chaos and smile ruefully. What would my 20-year old self say about the turn my life has taken with three kids? Concerts! Lectures! Drinks with friends! These have given way to birthday parties, household chores, and Sunday morning pancakes. Our weekend rhythms somehow manage to be lazy, indulgent, and still frenetic, filled with sticky faces, a few playground meltdowns, and more screen time than I care to admit.

Recently, however, I had occasion to re-examine these routines. A few months ago, I gave birth to my third child—a beautiful baby boy—and found myself back in a position where I was needed constantly (nursing every hour on the hour, anyone?), and at the same time, vulnerable and needy myself. I realized that my life depended on a seamless and constant cycle of both giving and taking. Indeed, it was those mundane weekend activities that l had rolled my eyes at, which highlighted this cycle. Like many parents, my husband and I struggle with how to teach our children to “give back.” We want them to grow up with an ethic of generosity towards the underprivileged, but poverty can be abstract and frightening. My advice? Start by showing your kids how often you receive from other people’s goodness.

After I had my baby, friends, acquaintances and even strangers signed up to drop off meals every few days. My childhood friend ordered an army’s worth of provisions just in time for our newborn’s six-week sleep regression. My husband and I had been walking around bleary-eyed, struggling to get through our daily routine. There was no way we could prepare anything more sublime than cheese sandwiches, eggs or cold cereal. The delivery brought a huge smile to our faces, especially the inclusion of the spare ribs earmarked just for the grown-ups. As each one of these “newborn meals” arrived, just when my depletion seemed total, I made a point of telling my kids who brought the food, how (or whether) we personally knew them, a bit about the family, and how all this delicious food was not only feeding our family, but also allowing me to feed the baby. For me to give to my children, I needed to receive from others.

I recently took my son to a neighbor’s birthday party. I quickly wrapped a puzzle and we ran over for an afternoon of games and socializing. A few weeks later, a small envelope came in the mail addressed to my son. His buddy had drawn a simple picture and his mother had transcribed her son’s sweet and funny words of thanks for the gift. I was surprised by the depth of attachment my son formed to the card. He took it with him to show his grandparents, slept with it next to him, and insisted on writing a thank you card for a thank you card. My son was so excited by the tangible thanks he received for the gift that it was hard to say who had given the gift to whom. In helping her son express his thanks for the gift, my friend seized the opportunity to teach both of our children a lesson about giving and receiving.

As I look back on the past few months, I’ve identified moments where I was the recipient of other people’s goodness and moments where I was the benefactor to others (ok—more the former than the latter in this newborn season). These were not dramatic gestures, nor, to be frank, do they make appreciable differences on any sort of worldwide scale. They are, however, behaviors that my children can relate to, if I point them out. And they have made differences in my life as a mom, as a professional, as a wife, and as a friend. I’ve taken to telling my children who gave them the book we’re reading before bed or who taught me how to make French fries the way they like them. They know that there is a family down the block who loans us their toys and they know that we frequently invite people to our home for lunches and playdates because my husband and I are good cooks with a large dining room and a high threshold for chaos. No matter how privileged, we are all sustained by the goodness, kindness and generosity of others. This is something we know so intuitively that we’re not always consciously aware of it. However, to teach our children how to be good, kind, and generous people, they need to know the degree to which they (and we) are beholden to others and giving in turn. Let’s start local. We’ll tackle the problems of the world later. For now, it’s enough to focus on those silly birthday gifts and weeknight dinners—here today, gone tomorrow, but helping us get from one moment to the next in the present.