Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Small Acts of Kindness

In this picture, Ben is busily writing a letter to Santa.  In the letter he tells Santa that he's been a good, good boy this year.  

“Maybe Christmas,” the Grinch thought, “doesn’t come from a store.  Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more…”  This is one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss. 

Commercialism can easily overtake the Christmas spirit if we are not careful. 

This year, I vowed, will be different.

My son Ben is an only child, and the only grandchild on my side of the family, so he gets more than his share of presents. 

I want him to understand that Christmas is about more than just getting presents. 

I want him to care about helping others. 

Some might say that, because Ben is autistic, this is an unreasonable goal.  Those naysayers believe that autistic individuals lack something called theory of mind, or the ability to take on the perspective of others.  In other words, they believe that those on the spectrum lack empathy.   Click here to read more of my thoughts on this topic.

This year I’ve made a thoughtful effort to insert acts of kindness into our holiday merry-making.  Rather than focusing so much on what Ben wants for Christmas, our conversations have been much more centered around thinking about the needs and wants of others.

I didn’t intentionally set out to create a five-step plan, but these events seemed to have evolved nicely into five steps, and so here they are:

1)  Help him to think about his closest friends and the things that they like.

This year Ben has made a few close buddies at school who he talks about a lot.   He hangs out with them before school and plays with them every day on the playground.  In order to help him with the concept of giving gifts to others, we first spent time thinking about the toys his friends enjoy playing with, the things they enjoy doing, and what they talk about most at school.  From there, we matched these interests to gift ideas.  For Nikki, his best friend, it was easy.  Ben knows that Nikki loves cars, so anything with Hot Wheels or Lightning McQueen is a safe bet for him.  We talked about how Emily loves Frozen and he has lots of fun building Legos with Mason.

2)  Make homemade presents for close friends and family members.

Every year Ben makes homemade ornaments and gifts for his family, but this year we really spent time talking about what each relative would like and taking care when making the item, whether it is a homemade card for his teacher with a carefully written letter, or choosing pretty colors that he knows his Mimi and Papaw will enjoy.  I’m not going to give too many details about the presents since they haven’t been opened yet, but you get the idea!

3)  Shop with a purpose

This year at school, Ben got shop for presents at Santa’s Secret Shop.  We sent Ben with a certain amount of money to spend on each friend and he picked out a small gift for his four closest pals.  Then, we made goody bags for the entire class that he filled with little toys and trinkets.  We went to the Dollar Tree and talked about which items his friends would like most.  We chose a few toys to include in each bag, and Ben got to fill the bags for each child.  Then, he made a small card with his name on it and put it inside each bag.  He’s very excited to give his presents to his friends on the last day of school before the break.

4)  Talk about why helping others is important

After shopping for friends, the next step was talking about helping people he didn’t know.  This is a very abstract concept, but I decided to try anyway.  We discussed how some families don’t have as much money as we do.  Ben really understands money these days.  He gets a dollar every day that he feeds the dogs and cleans up his toys.  He uses his dollars to play the game machines at the local pizza place, or he saves them up to go to Toys R Us.  When we explained that some families wouldn’t have money to buy toys for Christmas, he truly felt for them.  And then when we explained that he could help Santa by buying toys for kids who wouldn’t have toys, he was all in.

5) Talk about how donating feels good to do

Ben was finally ready to donate.  My husband took Ben to the local toy store.  He explained to Ben that he could pick out one toy for himself with his money, but he needed to choose one toy to donate to a child in need.  Ben accepted this and went to the store, carefully looking up and down the aisles for the perfect gift to give.  Finally, he settled on a Frozen doll to donate, something he knew a girl like Emily would like.

When he got to the cash register, he eagerly presented the money to the cashier and promptly walked over to the donation box. As he placed the toy in the box, the line of customers erupted in applause and Ben grinned from ear to ear.  One lady even gave him a dollar to put towards his next donation.  This got his attention.  Donations weren’t so bad after all.

The next weekend he wanted to donate again.  We explained to him that donating didn’t always mean applause or little old ladies handing out money, but he had to see that for himself.  We went to Toys R Us, and this time he chose a Hot Wheels set to place in the box.  This time, as we predicted, there was no applause and no free money handouts.  Amazingly, however, Ben took this all in stride.  He looked at the toys in the box, his hands empty, and walked out the door to the next stop on our shopping journey.

Since the second Toys R Us trip, Ben has donated twice more, once at school to the Toys for Tots box and once putting some change into the Salvation Army bucket. 

I like to think that he’s learning that giving feels good. 

I know he likes it that Santa’s watching and it’s earning him points on the nice list. 

And I’m pleased as heck that all this coming from a kid who’s not supposed to have the capacity for empathy.

I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderfully giving holiday season!

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