While at the store a month or so ago, my then 5 year old clutched his wad of hard earned cash in his hand. He had seen something at Target that he really wanted, and vowed to do the 4-5 chores that would be required to earn the money to pay for it. He worked tirelessly for 2-3 days to not only do each chore, but do it well. I was proud of his dedication, and also a little surprised at his ability to complete tasks I would have thought him incapable of. He unloaded the jam-packed dishwasher by himself, climbing on chairs to reach high cabinets, and even hauling heavy pots, pans, and glass casserole dishes to their proper place.
So once he finally had the $10 he needed, he was VERY excited to stop on the way home from the grocery store to buy his toy. But the young woman who bagged the groceries and pushed the cart to the car noticed his cash and commented, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of money there! I wish I had a lot of money!”
“Here, you can have it,” my son immediately replied. Without thought, he held out his money to her.
To my surprise, the young woman said, “Wow, really?”
“Sure,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as if it was no big deal. He extended his hand full of one dollar bills further out to her. Wait. What is happening here? I couldn’t believe she was actually considering taking money from a 5 year old.
“Are you sure?” She asked, reaching out for it, and grabbing hold. Both her hands and his were now on the money. I was shocked.
So I reached out and pushed the almost lost money into my son’s hand and objected, stating to him what he already knew, for her benefit, “That’s so nice, but honey, you worked really hard for DAYS to earn that so you could buy the toy you really really really have been wanting.”
“It’s ok,” he said simply.
She reached out, “How about I just take 3 of the dollars?” she suggested, as if this compromise was at all reasonable.
He started to agree and I objected again, taking all the money and putting it in my pocket. I felt like this woman was attempting to steal money from a 5 year old, taking advantage of his innocence and deep desire to please others. “That is very generous,” I reiterated, “and I’m so proud of your giving and self-less attitude, but you worked too hard for your toy to make a quick decision like this, so let’s hang on to it and think about this a little longer, ok?”
My son reluctantly agreed, and after loading the car, we went to Target, where he excitedly purchased his toy.
As I reflected on the event, I began to question myself. Did I deny my son an opportunity to give? What lesson did I teach him in this interchange? Do you not give generously, especially when it comes at a cost? That’s the best kind of gift, the kind that involves sacrifice. And my son was trying to do that, but I wouldn’t allow it. Was I basically telling him that his toy was more important than giving?
The question really comes down to this: how much did he really understand? Was he perfectly aware of what he was doing, and making a conscious choice to give sacrificially? Or was it a momentary good-natured gesture that he would later regret? Many times he has proven that he gets great joy from giving to others and making them happy. When I’ve been sad, he will bring me one of his most treasured toys, wrapped in a gift bag. When I’ve been stressed about money, he will run to his money jar and say I can have it all. So obviously making someone else happy brings him his own lasting happiness. But would the happiness of giving exceed the happiness of the toy? In my mind, she wouldn’t fully appreciate the gift, (though one could argue that we didn’t fully appreciate Jesus’ sacrificial gift to us either, but He still did it). I wanted to protect him, but maternal instincts aren’t always right. He was trying to do a good thing. But I was beginning to question the competency of the bagger. And in my mind, my 5 year old was about to be seriously taken advantage of.
But it does call into question the whole concept of accepting a gift. Sometimes rejecting a gift is hurtful to the giver. In fact, in other cultures, it is an insult not to accept a gift offering, whether a material item or a meal. No matter how repulsive the meal might be to you, to turn it down is to insult the hard work, sacrifice, and giving spirit that went in to the preparation of the food. Accepting what has been given to you is, in itself, a gift back to the gift-giver. It is a way of saying you appreciate the gift, but more importantly the way you express your gratitude for the thought behind the gift, the desire to make the recipient happy, and the sacrifice it took to provide this gift. While I do not think the the internal struggle of the store bagger was about being gracious in accepting a gift, there is a time we need to learn the art of politely accepting gifts.
So the question becomes, is there a time when you should refuse a gift? When the acceptance of the gift hurts more than it helps – does more harm than good? This is a hard question to answer on behalf of someone else, like my 5 year old, whose heart I knew, but whose mind I couldn’t gauge in terms of how carefully he’d weighed his options and how much he understood about the long term effect of his generosity. Would giving his money away make him sad later on? And would his sadness be bigger than the happiness he momentarily got from making the bagger happy?
Whether or not I taught the right lesson by taking the money back, I do have to admit that I am both proud and somewhat envious of my son’s generosity. He responded to what he saw as a need, without even a thought to what it meant to him. Imagine a world where people did this. Put others before themselves. Gave sacrificially, without consideration to whether the recipient “deserved” it. I try to imagine this kind of world, but I can’t. We need to take note of our children’s wisdom and purity and impulsive goodness, before the world ruins them with its selfishness and pride. Because for a small window of time, we’ve been given the gift of perfect little examples of Christ-likeness, right in our homes that we can reach out and touch. I don’t need a WWJD bracelet. I’ve got two sweet children to show me the way. If only I follow.