With four children, three of whom are at secondary and our youngest in her final year of primary, I’m aware that I’ve made a fair few parenting mistakes over the years. My wife, thankfully, is the level-headed, wise, sensible one in our family. I get to bring the fun, but looking back there’s a clear and unifying theme that runs through many of my greatest Dad-fails, as my enthusiasm overpowers my common sense.
Like the day I took our four year old son down a vertical slide. He was keen, but nervous and so I was full of “hey, trust me son, it’ll be fine and a total rush”. Unfortunately he was wearing shorts, his leg got trapped beneath mine and he received some pretty nasty friction burns. The looks of disapproval from the watching mums stayed with me far longer than the scabs that clung to my boy’s legs.
Thankfully, my wife is also very forgiving. And my kids? Well, they know how to laugh at me.
Now that you know I’m about as unqualified as possible to dispense parenting advice, I’ll get on topic. How do you encourage generosity in teenagers? All I know is that one size does most definitely not fit all.
For our first child, it was easy. Right from a young age she’s always been generous and always been interested in helping people. When she was six she went through a phase of making sure that any child who visited our home was given a toy. When she was nine she started fundraising for a school in rural Uganda, and by the time she was old enough to catch the bus by herself into town she’d frequently spend a Saturday afternoon buying sandwiches and handing them out to the local homeless. Today, age 17, she’s one of the most generous people I know.
All we have had to do is give her the opportunities and support that she needs. Weirdly it’s a lot like taking her to the top of the slide and letting her take the jump herself.
And then there’s our second child, currently starting his GCSEs. Just the other day, when his three sisters heard about a cause that moved them and all spontaneously decided to donate all their pocket money, our son winced a little.
“Do I have to?”
“Of course you don’t,” my wife and I said.
“Good,” he said. “Because I’m not like you or the girls. You’re all generous, not me.”
In some ways he’s right. He doesn’t get stirred up by emotive stories and his sense of compassion or thirst for justice doesn’t drive him to take risks. If he’s got money he knows exactly how he wants to spend it (usually in Fortnite land). There’s a look that his sisters have on their faces when they meet someone who they can help. Our son doesn’t have that.
And yet, that’s not the whole story.
Our eldest wouldn’t be seen dead in the school CU, yet every week our son regularly corrals his friends and takes them along, even though almost none have any history or declare interest in Christianity. The notion of compromise doesn’t sit that well with our eldest, yet out of everyone in the house, it is our son who is always the most willing to take one for the team.
So it strikes me that there’s more than one kind of generosity. Money matters, of course it does, but what about generosity of spirit, of forgiveness, of encouragement? Isn’t that equally important?
And here’s an aside. In thinking about encouraging generous teenagers, I want to ask myself why it matters to me. Do I get a little ego boost from the fact that our eldest is widely known for her generosity? Do I think less of my son’s acts of generosity because they’re less visible than his sister’s?
I’ve made many mistakes as a parent, and I’m thankful that we can laugh about nearly all of them now. But perhaps my biggest error of all has been not fully seeing them as their own unique selves. I’ve been prescriptive, and more than a little mono-focal.
So, to me right now, the biggest question is not so much about how to transplant generosity to my children - though I’d like to get a whole lot better at leading by example on that front. The real question is knowing how to identify the signs of a generous life within them today. From there we can encourage, support and, when the time’s right, challenge.