Teaching Our Kids to Give Back During the Holidays

If your children are anything like mine, they begin compiling their holiday wish lists around (if not before) October. “Ooooh, I want that!” my preschooler shrieks, her eyes feasting upon a commercial featuring eight-year-olds and glitter body art. (Um, no.) “Mama, can I get that for Christmas? Pllleeease?” Ah, yes…to a child, what else are the holidays about, other than “me”?

As adults, we know better. We recognize that, while a pair of diamond earrings from “Santa” are, of course, always awesome, the true joy of the holiday season comes from not getting but giving. Yet, how do we impart that wisdom to our children? In our crazy, commercialized world, how can we teach our kids the glory of giving back?

Here are a few ideas…

  • Adopt a family. It may be obvious to us grownups, but in their worlds of playdates and pretend and Santa and school, kids are often unaware that some people go without. Talk to your kids about those less fortunate, and show them that they can help by adopting a family in need for Christmas. Family Service Association of San Antonio connects volunteers with families who require basic items, and the Angel Tree network allows you to purchase gifts for the children of inmates. Humanize the experience by discussing the details of your adopted family with your child (e.g., “The family we adopted has two little boys—one of them is three, like you!”). Take your child with you when shopping for your adopted family, and let her select the items you wish to send.
  • Get a jump-start on your spring cleaning. Help your children clean out their toy closets and encourage them to set aside old playthings they wish to donate. Last year, Harper & I sorted through a barrage of old toys and ended up with two giant storage bins full of things to give away—all items of her own choosing. Organizations such as the Battered Women & Children’s Shelter, the Ronald McDonald House, and many local children’s hospitals all accept gently used toys as Christmas donations, so grab a box and start sorting! Note: It’s natural for kids to feel a little sentimental about giving away things they once treasured. If your child changes his mind about an item and wants to remove it from the giveaway box, let him. Remind him, though, of the joy it could bring someone else, especially if he hasn’t played with said item in a while. During our clean-out project last year, my daughter suddenly insisted on keeping a stuffed rabbit that had been sitting in her closet all by its lonesome for years. I told her that was fine, but once I explained that the old bunny she’d seldom acknowledged could end up serving as someone else’s “Teddy” (e.g., the stuffed bear my child sleeps with every night), she willingly put the bunny back in the box. She loved the idea of knowing that her old, abandoned rabbit could end up being another child’s favorite stuffed animal, and she still talks about it to this day.
Give your child's gently used toys a new life by donating.
Give your child’s gently used toys a new life by donating.
  • Put on your aprons. Bake a batch of cookies with your toddler and deliver them to a nursing home or senior center. Even the youngest kids usually love to cook, and allowing them to tag along as you deliver homemade goodies gives your children the opportunity to see for themselves that a simple gesture can go a long way. Not the Martha Stewart-y type? Pick up a few dozen breakfast tacos and hand them out to those working at a fire station, police precinct, or the NICU. This not only teaches children to give back, but it reinforces the importance of contributing to those who give back to us on a daily basis.
Homemade yummies are fun to make and always appreciated.
Homemade yummies are fun to make and always appreciated.
  • Get crafty. Does your child love to draw or paint? Have her make Christmas cards to send to local children’s hospitals, or contact the Holiday Mail for Heroes program to mail cards to troops overseas. Talk to your child about how a simple card can brighten someone else’s day and lift their spirits. After all, giving doesn’t have to come from your wallet; it just has to come from the heart.
  • Be good neighbors. Buy a couple of boxes of instant cocoa mix, or divide Hershey Kisses into plastic baggies secured with a ribbon, or something equally simple. Set out with your children on a walk around your neighborhood, and offer the items to your neighbors in the name of the holiday spirit. The face-to-face interaction will help your child see for himself how thoughtfulness is met with gratitude.
  • Make it personal. Allow your child to select an ornament for an extra special someone—be it a grandparent, teacher, or other significant person in your child’s life—and wrap it any way she wants. Kids love the freedom of doing things themselves, and they relish the opportunity to choose on their own without your assistance. A twist on this, if Grandma would prefer not to have cartoon-character ornaments covering her tree: Select frame-style ornaments that include cutouts for pictures, and have your child pick out which photos of herself to display.
Have your child select an ornament for a special someone.
Have your child select an ornament for a special someone.
  • Give up a gift. Inspired by ACMB Co-Founder Brooke Meabon’s family birthday tradition, have your child strike a single item from his Christmas list, and—before the tears ensue—ask him to think of ways he might like to spend the money you would’ve otherwise spent on the gift. For example, if helping animals inspires your child, look for a charity together that welcomes donations for pet adoptions or spay/neuter programs, such as SNIPSA. If your child expresses a desire to help other children, consider contributing to an organization like Kidd’s Kids, which sends terminally or chronically ill children and their families to Disney World each year. Talk about your child’s donation and how his contribution will help others of the charity group he selected.
  • Volunteer. Although toddlers and younger children may not be ready for such hands-on activity, those with Kindergarteners and older children, don’t be afraid to get involved. There are dozens of local charity organizations through which you and your children can give back to your community. Elf Louise, one of our city’s most famous holiday charity organizations, welcomes families to assist in gift wrapping and present delivery. The San Antonio Food Bank encourages volunteers ages eight and older to help collect and organize canned donations. The possibilities are endless. Step outside of your comfort zone, and let your children experience the humility of helping others through their service.

Without question, though, the greatest way to help your child’s delight in giving back to others is, simply, to be that type of person yourself. Our children watch us constantly. They learn more through our actions than they ever will from our words. Opportunities for us to demonstrate generosity and kindness appear every day. It’s up to us to embrace them. And when we fail to do that, we have to try, try again.

A few weeks ago, I was stuck in traffic when my daughter’s tiny voice emerged from the back seat: “Mommy, who is that guy?” I glanced up to see my preschooler gesturing to a homeless man limping along Blanco at 1604.

Unprepared for a conversation of this depth, I explained the concept of homelessness in the vaguest of terms: “Well, he’s a person who doesn’t have a house.”

“What does his sign say?”

“It says ‘Need a Hot Meal.’ He’s hungry and asking people to bring him something to eat.”


“So, he’s poor?”

“Yes, he is,” I said.

I wish I could tell you that I diverted from my hurried route to tee-ball practice, pulled into Luby’s around the corner, bought that man something, and turned back around to deliver it to him. But I didn’t. I was in a rush, and the magnitude of that moment didn’t fully sink in until later.

It was a golden opportunity to teach my daughter a lesson in giving back—and I blew it.

For many of us, the holidays add an extra degree of stress to our already busy schedules. It’s so easy to get caught up in the bustle of the Christmas season that we may often miss the very moments that make the holidays so magical. Even those of us with the best intentions can fall short if we don’t slow down, look up, and recognize an opportunity when it’s presented to us.

The good news is: Another prospective teachable moment is always waiting around the corner. Next time, I know I’ll embrace the chance to teach my child a lesson in giving back, even if it interrupts my usual drive home or means I’m five minutes late to her ballet class. Next time, I’ll set the right example and be the kind of person I hope my daughter aspires to one day become.

After all, our children are our greatest legacies. What bigger way is there to truly give back than by instilling in them a desire to make our world a better place?[hr]

What are some of your favorite charities here in the Alamo City? How do you and your family plan to give back this holiday season?

Taylor is a San Antonio native and stay-at-home mom to two daughters: eight-year-old Harper and one-year-old Hayes. She and her Okie husband, Jeff, have been married 12 years despite their Texas/OU rivalry. Taylor is a former Clark Cougar, a devout Texas Longhorn, where she studied English, an active MOPS member, and often feels like a professional juggler. She relishes trips to the theater, loves embarking on new adventures with her family, and admittedly spends too much time on Facebook. A former contributor, Taylor’s posts center on parenting her tenacious, strong-willed first-born and the challenges she faced along the way to becoming a mom of two. She now serves as ACMB’s editor and resident proofreader, and as such, cares way too deeply about the use of Oxford commas.


  1. Thank you for posting this! My husband and I have talked about how we want to teach our kids to give during the holidays. This collection of ideas will help us do that. Thank you!

    Pinning this.

    • Thanks, Ashley! Happy to hear that your family plans to put some of these ideas in motion. I see you have your own blog… You should post about it there sometime! It would be so cool to read about someone else’s experience with putting these ideas into action. 🙂 Thanks for reading. Happy holidays to you & your family!

  2. Taylor, this is a wonderful collection of ideas. I’m going to discuss your post with my family so that we can collectively come up with a way (or ways) to give back. I think your list is especially applicable to the holiday season, but there are gems here for all year long.

  3. Thank you Taylor for your inspiring us. Two weeks ago, I was racing to my grandson’s baptism and saw a homeless man I have seen many times on the access road at Sunset. Usually, I just ignore him but on that day, I reached into my purse to give him some money. Normally, this would be a one dollar bill, but Lindsay Rouse’s father taught me that giving a $2.00 bill is memorable. My own mother always taught me $2.00 bills are considered lucky, so if ever I was given one, I saved it. Now, I share them. When I handed him the bill, he said “That is a lucky bill!” And then he added, “God bless you.” I have another friend who told me she has $1.00 bills in her car to hand out as needed. She told me it was worth it to spend a dollar to have someone ask God to bless you. So, it is back to the bank to see if they have any $2.00 bills for sale. May God bless each and everyone of you.

    • Dr. Rouse, thanks so much for your comment. I absolutely looove the $2.00 bill idea. That just takes it one step further. I think Harper & I are going to have to stop by the bank and get some $2.00 bills so we can put this in action. Thanks so much for suggesting it! Happy holidays to you & yours!

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