This year, my children’s 4-H club worked hard to raise money to fund their activities. And in an act of generosity, they spent a large portion of the money they’d raised buying gifts for two anonymous children whose names and wish lists were on a local Angel Tree.
I’m always proud of my kids when they give back to their community, whether through volunteer service or by donating money they’ve earned. But our trip to the mall, with the 4-H club, got me thinking about the local Angel Trees and what they mean for the families that use them, today and in the future.
Angel Trees are a new idea
A couple of generations ago, there weren’t any Angel Trees. Sure, there were ways that people gave to needy children in all sorts of communities, but the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program did not begin until 1979. Today’s parents are the first generation to grow up with this massive, nationwide program of organized giving.
So what did parents of previous generations do before they were able to just put their kids’ names on a list and wait for strangers to fulfill their Christmas wishes? As it so happens, they did a lot.
Appreciating the little things
I was born before the Angel Tree program, and grew up without a lot of money to spend. I remember my mom going without new clothes and fixing frugal suppers and my dad working long hours and skipping lunches so they could save a little money to buy Christmas presents.
Watching my parents work hard and sacrifice made me appreciate the gifts they were able to buy so much more than I would have appreciated more expensive items from strangers, because I could see the love that went in my meager presents weeks before they appeared under the tree.
Learning not to be greedy
When you learn to appreciate the little things, you naturally avoid developing a sense of entitlement. Parents of older generations did a better job of teaching children not to be greedy when asking for gifts, either from their own family or from others. My mother grew up in a community so poor, most of the families were unable to provide any presents at all for their kids. Generous folks provided money so that every child received one single small gift at school. But the children were happy and thankful for that single present and never felt entitled to more.
Today, the Angel Tree gifts requested are often just as small and heartwarming, but many of the ones I have seen are much more ostentatious. And why not? When kids are raised expecting that their wishes will be granted by anonymous benefactors, they can begin to feel very much entitled, and the wish list tends to grow. I’ve seen so many requests for bicycles, video game systems, computers and the like over the past decade, it makes me sad. Learning to avoid that sense of entitlement would be a far better gift than any Xbox or iPad could ever be.
Identifying the truly needy
As I said, I grew up without a lot of money. I never had trendy clothes or the coolest toys. Most of what I wore was hand-me-downs from a family friend or garage sale finds. Like a lot of kids I grew up with, a used coat in good condition would have been good enough for me. But I never felt needy, and my parents would have never put my name on an Angel Tree.
That’s not because of pride. It’s because we knew how to identify the truly needy, and we knew we weren’t among them. The kids whose dad died unexpectedly a few months before Christmas, or whose house recently burned down; those were the ones who really needed the community to come together and provide for them.
The impact on future generations
Today, perhaps in large part due to the Angel Tree and other projects, kids are growing up unable to distinguish needs from wants, and the truly needy from those who just want a bigger slice of the Christmas pie. I know one grandmother who put every one of her grandkids on the Angel Tree at a local hospital, saying, “Why not? They deserve it as much as anyone else?”
Why not? Because her grandkids weren’t really needy. They weren’t going to go without a Christmas. They just wanted more. And that’s how they will grow up, with their hands out, expecting more, never learning to sacrifice, to make do, or to appreciate what they have worked for. This season will shape their lives well into the future, and not in a positive way.
That grandmother might have gotten her grandkids a lot of stuff for Christmas, but what she gave them was no gift. Think about that if you are thinking of putting your own kids on the Angel Tree next year. If you are really, truly needy, by all means add your children’s names. But if you just want more, your kids might actually be better off in the long run with less.
More by Tavia:
Teaching Your Children the Difference Between Wants and Needs
Santa was on a Budget the Year Our Youngest was Born
Teach Your Kids Good Christmas Manners