Back in 2007, I had a difficult holiday season. Only two months before the holidays, my marriage of seventeen years had officially ended in divorce, the job I held for five years left the state, and my sister was being treated for terminal cancer. Money was tight after paying all the bills, and since I had custody of my daughter, my ex was supposed to pay child support, but had made little effort to do her duty. My savings dwindled pretty quickly. It was a depressing and difficult time for me.
My daughter, a talented artist, had taken up photography at the arts magnet school she attended, and she wanted digital camera for Christmas. In my situation, that was pretty much out of my reach financially. A pastor at my church talked to some nice people who wanted do something nice for an underprivileged youth, so they bought her a nice camera and gave it to her. It was a wonderful gesture, and I was happy that she got what she wanted, but it hurt me knowing that I was not able to give her the gift she wanted.
I recently read the book, Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton. The book describes how sometimes, the generous acts that we do for others can actually do more harm than the good we want them to do. He contends that in a number of cases, our generous acts can keep those in need from helping themselves, and often makes them dependent on handouts when they can be better off with hand ups.
An example that hit home for me was a story about annual gift drives that businesses, churches, and civic groups and individuals hold each year during the holidays. Kind-hearted donors buy new toys and put them in barrels, which are then distributed by those groups to low income children while they watch. The story he tells takes place in the home of the recipients, and when the guests come to give the children presents, the father of the family leaves the room while the kids open their gifts. The children acknowledged that the good presents come from the nice rich people, and it hurt the father’s pride knowing he could not provide the gifts they wanted.
Some groups have started doing things differently in the recent years. Now, instead of delivering the presents directly to the children, parents come into the places where the gifts are kept, pay a small fee that they can afford, and then choose the gifts for their children. Volunteers and/or the parents then wrap the presents, and the parents are the ones who give the presents to their children. The children don’t know that the gifts come from someone other than their parents, and the parents don’t need to feel the shame or embarrassment in front of their children. I personally believe that is a better way of sharing the holiday spirit.
If you are planning on providing gifts to low income children over the holiday season, try to find the organizations that are working this way. It’s wonderful to share with others, but it really can harm a parent’s self-esteem if it is not done right.
I also think you should read Toxic Charity, if you can. I found it enlightening, and it didn’t take too long. It certainly provides some good food for thought.