Friday, December 05, 2014

Kids, Christmas, Charity.

We have had enough Christmases as a family now that the girls know it's something to get excited about. They remember presents, a tree, lights, absurd quantities of food and being allowed to watch telly during the day, add the social acceptability of drinking alcohol with breakfast and you have all of the things that I love about Christmas too. And yet as they get older I feel more and more compelled to kill the glorious magic of it, just a little.

As a child I spent a not insignificant part of the festive season crying for those who were less fortunate than me. It started at six or seven with the starving children in Africa and as I grew older came to encompass the homeless, the lonely, the poor AND the starving children in Africa. The first Christmas that Nye and I spent together we were sitting on the sofa, watching telly by the light of the tree, and the Oxfam Christmas appeal came on just before the Vicar of Dibley. I sobbed. I sobbed huge, heaving tears, and Nye was (while sympathetic) a little taken aback, 'aren't you used to seeing images like that by now?' he asked. 'Yes, but it's JUST SO SAD.' I wailed. I was 19 and still crying for the starving children of Africa.

When I was in primary school I took part every year in the Shoebox Appeal. Remember those? Each child filled a shoebox for a specific age and gender with small toys, clothes and essential toiletries, wrapped the whole thing in Christmas paper and then they were collected and distributed them to children in need. I hadn't thought about the shoebox appeal for years until last Christmas when I began to feel like my kids really needed to start to understand how incredibly lucky they are and that there are many, many people who are less so. And not just to understand it but to do something, however small, about it. So I looked into the shoebox appeal again and found that a) I was about 6 weeks too late (apparently it takes some time to organise sending 8 million shoe boxes around the world) and b) unbeknown to me, the whole thing is organised by an evangelical Christian charity and the shoe boxes are sent 'in Jesus' name', alongside a pamphlet of evangelical literature. Which. . . I have problems with. So that year I just did what I always do, donated money to Shelter and Oxfam and cried quietly into my laptop as I typed in my debit card number. It felt . . . not enough. And did nothing to teach my children anything.

Yes, they were three years old.  Many people would argue that three is too young to start learning about the injustices of the world and of course I don't want to burden them too young with sadness and worry and guilt (it's too soon to tell just how sensitive to it they will be; normal-child-sensitive, or cry-yourself-to-sleep-sensitive), but I do want to start sowing the seed. I do want them to know that Christmas isn't just about getting new stuff and eating until you hurt. I do want them to understand that as someone lucky enough to be born into comfort and security it is your duty to help those who weren't. But, they're four. There's only so much I can do at this point and the struggle is to find a way that both helps and that they can engage with. It's so easy to donate money and it's very easy to buy a goat or a vaccination kit or a meal for a child on the other side of the world, those things help but they are too abstract for a small child to understand. The shoebox appeal appealed (ha!) to me because it was tangible, something that the girls could get involved with, and yes, that we could mostly do without leaving the house which is always a bonus as far as I'm concerned. There are also some pretty hardcore things we could do, many places we could volunteer as a family (hospices, hospitals, shelters etc) but I know my limits, as an extremely sensitive introvert I'm just not ready to take on the level of emotional and sensory input that volunteering with two four year olds would involve. One day, but not yet.

So that leaves me with my usual donating to charities and a bit of a blank when it comes to my children. My thoughts are that we will go shopping together for the local food bank and that we will go through their extensive bookshelves picking out the books that they no longer read and finding a way to distribute them elsewhere. But more importantly I will try to find a way to talk to them about injustice, about privilege and about the fact that our Christmas is not the Christmas that every family gets. I have no fucking idea how to even begin this conversation.

My questions for you are;

  1. Did/do you teach your children about charity? How? When? At what age?
  2. Do you know of any books aimed at pre-schoolers that explain charity? Or are we just not supposed to shatter their innocense until they start school?
  3. Do you take part in any charity at Christmas? Tangible or virtual?
  4. Did you take part in the Shoebox Appeal? Did you know that you were sending toothbrushes IN JESUS' NAME?
  5. What are you having for Christmas dinner?

Finally, this year I will be donating money to Shelter and Plan UK.

90,000 children will be homeless in Britain this Christmas and a further 1.5 million living in poverty. The government are doing all that they can to protect the rich from the brutality of paying taxes on their massive wealth while royally fucking the poor in a myriad of ways. I believe that 'Big Society' is a bullshit way for the government to sound like they give a damn about the poor while not-so-slowly stamping them into the ground, but in the face of an ever-diminishing welfare system it seems that it is in fact down to the members of our society with even the smallest social consionce to do what they can for those who are being screwed. Shelter is working really hard to offer advice, representation and support to those facing homelessness while campaigning for reforms in housing law to prevent homelessness ever occuring.

PlanUK is a global children's charity helping children in area's of natural disaster and promoting the rights of adolescent girls in areas where female genital mutilation and child marriage are rife. You can sponsor a child with PlanUK here or donate to the Girls Fund here.

* Blogger Fail. I reverse searched the image, I googled 'glitter hands', I seriously spent 20 minutes on it. I gave up. I don't care. Sorry. 


  1. I volunteered with Caring Christmas Trees for a few years, until last year when my mum was ill and this year we have Flora. But I always buy my trees from them, and will explain to her where the money is going. It's run by a Christian charity too - in fairness, it makes sense, given the time of year, and so many charities generally have a Christian background that often that's all there is. It doesn't bother me (I'm married to one, after all) but yeah, evangelical pamphlets aren't really my thing either.

  2. Tricky one. I work for a charity and we get a lot of people contacting us at Christmas wanting to volunteer. To be honest, in a lot of ways I feel it's a shame - I know it sounds really contrived, and it's great that Christmas heightens people's awareness, but there are projects that need support all year round. Anyway. Off my soap box.

    In terms of helping kids to be aware - the humanist society suggests this charity for shoeboxes - who are less evangelical and more egalitarian in their distribution. I'm rubbish with kids so I don't know how they deal with things at what ages, but maybe getting them to pick something in the shops to give to a local food bank (Tesco are working with the Trussel Trust this Xmas and I think they're doubling donations) and explaining that some children have less fun Christmases? Or - arranging a harvest donation at their nursery or school in the Autumn? There's a charity in Edinburgh that collects toiletries and hampers to give to older people who don't have families as well - so maybe getting the kids to pick something for one of those and donating to a local older people's charity?

    For kids that are a bit older, Jaqueline Wilson books are fantastic - the Bed and Breakfast Star is great for talking about homelessness for example. There's also a David Walliams book called Mr Stink that they made into a film a year or two ago.

    I'm going to be volunteering with Crisis as part of their Christmas team this year, so I won't be eating Christmas dinner, but I am going to be one of those sanctimonious folk who asks everyone I know for a donation towards the cost of them running the service.

  3. My little one's only 6 months so this isn't a bridge I've crossed yet but I know you can buy presents for babies and children who will be spending Christmas in hospital - might that be something tangible you could get the girls involved with if they help to choose a present with you?

    I know the Royal Brompton (through the charity The Brompton Fountain) are collecting presents (the only stipulation is they have to be new, I guess for germ control) and I'm sure there are similar collections at Great Ormond Street, the Evalina Children's Hospital or many others.

  4. Oh yes, I struggle with this! Is picking up some food and bringing it to a food bank enough? Having her watch me donate on-line? What does this teach her? I totally agree with the person who said volunteering at this point in the year isn't enough, volunteer orgs are actually usually overwhelmed right now. I made one of our Advent Activities "Choose an organisation/cause to support in the coming year" so we can talk about how and what ways we can support something meaningfully through the year instead of just now...but that's all I got. It still feels shameful when I have a damn American Girl Doll stashed in the closet.

  5. A great, thought provoking post Cara. You sound like a really gentle wee soul.
    My children are 13,10 and 3 and it's definitely easier for the older two to grasp these issues - and to be affected by them.
    I tried the 'let's donate your old toys' activity when they were 3/4. Didn't go well ...
    We did do the shoebox activity though for several years and they really enjoyed that. It also prompted lots of great from the back of the car conversations about helping others, the memories of which i treasure. I do hear what you say about the accompanying literature but i guess the receiving of the gifts outweighed anything else for us.
    This year we are looking at local charities to support as they have talked of how little they can do to affect global problems (this also made for an interesting chat because of course there are thing they can do/choices they can make ...) But i want to encourage their current thinking, which this year is about homeless people they have seen in our nearest town centre. So we found a charity nearby that will be offering Christmas dinner, presents and company. They are looking for donations as well as hands on help. The former is something we can definitely do and i would love to say that they will come with me to offer some smiles and conversation. It's a tricky one as the oldest is very sensitive. So am still reflecting on that.
    Plan - International/UK is, i think, a great way for you to gently talk through some of the issues with the girls.
    Credit to you for raising this topic instead of the '5 things i really want now' and 'top 10 gifts ... ' posts that are swirling around Blogland at the moment.
    Am not a particular fan of Phil Collins but, still, "... just another day, for you and me, in paradise ..."

  6. I am also liking the idea of donating old toys, but agree with anon above that it might be too much for my 3 year old!!
    This website has good ideas to make you feel less like you are raising greedy, entitled monsters...!

  7. Have you seen the Refuge Christmas Gift list appeal? It's for women living in their shelters who have escaped domestic violence - you can buy gifts for the women and their children. Obviously you don't want to explain the concept of domestic violence to your girls, but perhaps an explanation that some mummies and children don't have a home to live in this year and that you can send them presents. You go on and choose things from a John Lewis gift list so the girls can be involved in choosing presents that they would like to donate. More details here

  8. Hello! I love this post, my folks brought me up surrounded by charitable causes as they are ardent believers in giving back. With respect to Christmas specific things - When I was small we did various charitable activities which also constituted 'fun' for young 'uns to get the message across. As members of Round Table, my folks and their friends organised a kiddies pantomime which all of us kids performed at the local care homes around Christmas. It got the point home to us early on that it was nice to cheer people up at Christmas. You will find that a lot of care homes do Christmas dinners / events which they are happy to have volunteers be part of over the festive season incl carol concerts which kids can take part in. I also went with my dad to take Christmas parcels to old or less able- bodied people who were not able to leave their homes or who had any family nearby, we would spend some time with them, have a cuppa and sometimes take them a meal. As a child, I enjoyed this very much as I loved a good chat. We woudl also drive people to church on Christmas morning (not being religious or church goers ourselves this meant we do lots of runs as we weren't missing anything) We also took part in the Christmas Santa 'float' which went round the local towns, giving out sweets to children, this was totally brilliant because it felt like we were ACTUAL ELVES. People would donate money into our tins and wave at Santa on his sleigh. Turns out one year 'Santa' was in fact my dad dressed up but I didn't know that! The most valuable thing you can give people is your time and we did a lot of that during the rest of the year too. Christmas definitely highlights charity in general which is no bad thing. Now we live in a village we take some of the elderly folks who cannot drive to the shops, we pop in to see isolated people (something there are plenty of organisations for in London) and we do volunteer dog walking which is great fun. I don't think it is ever too soon to learn about people less fortunate, it doesn't sap the joy, it enhances it. As you and Nye are conscientious, caring people already, the girls will form a good moral compass by osmosis! Oh and we are having cockerel for Christmas dinner from the local farm!

  9. This year I participated in the rucksack project, an initiative to help homeless people living on the streets during the winter. You fill a rucksack with warm clothes, shoes and unused toiletries which can then be donated via one of the projects events or simply given directly to a homeless person or a local shelter. You might be too late for one of the events, but it might be something the girls could help with. Its got a similar feel to the shoebox appeal but its not run by a religious group.

    FYI - I had no idea that my shoebox came with an added serving of dogma. I loved doing those boxes when I was a kid, it felt good knowing that someone would benefit and I always used to imagine what they would draw with the crayons we donated each year.

  10. Living in Africa, I have never had to teach my children about those less fortunate than them. They see it every day. Having said that, comfort yourself in the knowledge that not every African child is starving...perhaps less rich than most, but they lead a very enhancing life and could teach everyone something of value, happily and wholeheartedly. I suspect not that different from the less fortunate in the UK? I don't know. Why can't the world be more equal?? Sigh. Don't get me started on the plight of this weary, beautiful planet of ours...Jesus....Wishing you and yours a tender Christmas. x janelle

  11. my sisters and i were huge crafters, and as we got older my mother found various local programs that took blankets for homeless and foster children - binky patrol is the one that comes to mind - and we'd make blankets and donate them. i remember being very into it; a favorite blanket is a simple thing for a kid to grasp, and being able to make something useful was a huge source of pride for me. i know binky patrol has a bunch of kid-appropriate projects on their site. also, my mother volunteered through some sort of local organization as a driver for seniors who couldn't get to their doctor's appointments by themselves. riding along with her and seeing her model charitable behavior for us was a big deal as well.

    i also know of parents who ask their children to give away one of their toys each year at christmas to make room for the ones they'll receive, which both cuts down on clutter and really reinforces the idea that other kids have less than they do.

  12. If you read a bit of french (could not find this one translated), Ernest et CĂ©lestine "La cabane" is beautiful and accessible; it tells of sharing with people who have nothing in a nice story of a makeshift cabin in the woods

  13. Oh, I have been meaning to comment on this for days and perhaps the moment has passed, but anyway. I just wanted to say that I admire your tender heart and, having recently had a baby, have myself been overwhelmed by feelings I've never really had before - namely, thoughts of 'How can anyone do anything bad to a child?!' and 'What about all the sick children in the world?!' and the one that relates to this post, 'What about babies who aren't as lucky as my baby?!' And by that I mean born into a situation that isn't financially secure or into a home or to parents who can't meet its needs. Not bigging up my own amazing parenting skills. And I've been crying a lot. Ai, hormones.

    I have no practical advice to offer, I'm afraid - just chiming in with a 'me, too'. I'll be making a donation online this year - the lazy option, I know - but I guess it's something?

  14. Love your post. I too have major issues donating to Christian charities. Is there a secret santa charity near you? We live in the north east and cash for kuds do a secret santa each year where you buy toys and they get donated to selected families, children's homes, etc. Now my kids are 7 and 5 we take them to buy the presents and they have a much better understanding. X


play nice.