Our once proud country has taken a beating this holiday season. Seeing a president impeached has been a very jarring experience for many of us, regardless of our views on the man in the White House. The soap-opera behavior of our leaders has drained our confidence that we will ever be able to get this country back on track again. As a result, there are serious questions on the minds of many Americans. Among them are: "Where are our heroes?" and "Why can't we do things right anymore?"
For answers to these two questions, we're going to have to look to ourselves and to our neighbors and not to any superman or superwoman. Where are the heroes? Well here's where: The heroes of our time are the millions of Americans who serve countless good causes as volunteers. The answer to question number two is: We are doing something very right. And we continue to do it year in and year out. Each year we donate billions of dollars to charity. This is no small thing. Nowhere else is this as true as in the United States of America. The figures are impressive. Over 80 percent of Americans make charitable contributions. The money that comes from average Americans surpasses that of even the wealthiest corporations.
Quite a few individuals and families who have accumulated wealth over the years are giving their money away in spectacular sums. Sometimes as much as in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Equally as impressive as the mega-giving by families of historic wealth, are the tales of rags to riches generosity. Like that of a seemingly poor black woman, quietly investing her domestic's wages until it accumulated into a small fortune. She is now happily dispensing it for the good of the poor in her community.
Many of these self-made philanthropists, when asked about the source of their generosity, tell stories of their own family's deprivation. In spite of that, their parents did everything possible to instill both the work ethic and the charitable ethic in their children.
I remember that giving or working for the charity dollar was actually fun in spite of the modest incomes of our parents and the even less pocket money we had. Most of us were the children of struggling workers or small business people. Yet they taught us to care a lot about those who were less fortunate than we were.
I myself grew up in a home where there was a very visible "pushka," a charity box where we were encouraged to put a percentage of our pennies each week. Also, there was a hardly a month in school where we were not encouraged to bring cans of food for flood victims or where we were not sporting Red Cross pins for the nickles we contributed. Often we were recruited for a variety of causes. I remember going door to door collecting for the March of Dimes to fight polio.
Here's another question we should ponder: will today's children, especially those who have had a relatively easy time growing up, with enough money for luxuries, develop the conscience or have the experience that leads to their being generous enough to support worthy causes? Or will they back away, not necessarily out of a lack of concern, but out of a need to compulsively spend their last pennies in order to satisfy an urge to accumulate endless goods for themselves and their children. The very low rate of American savings and the record amount of consumer debt point to this as a very real issue.
Since consumer spending and stock and bond prices are always going to affect the giving behavior of citizens of this country, how can we reduce this impact on the operations of organizations that provide vital services?
It is unrealistic that the general population will follow the practice of the Mormon community who tithe 10 percent of their income to charity, but it will help if families consciously promote charitable giving as a basic ingredient in their everyday life and the lives of their children.
For example, more and more parents are encouraging children to share a percentage of their bar mitzvah or confirmation gifts with a designated charity of the children's own choice.
It is important that a basic tenet of parenting be the ability to transmit to your children the fact that gratification in life is not achieved alone from the accumulation of piles of material goods. Through deeds and words, parents must learn how to communicate the ideal that real gratification comes when we share something meaningful with others. The telling of anecdotes about how gifts from the family have benefited others and how that benefits the whole community, can be instructive.
Periodic storytelling is always a good way to teach our children. And let's not forget one of the oldest tricks that parents have used, selecting inspirational books to read aloud to very young children. This plants the seeds for values that parents treasure most and wish to have their children adopt. A story about a Lady Bountiful makes your point, but so does one about King Midas, especially if he is shown in words and pictures, as a greedy old man with a cold heart who didn't know how to share his wealth with others. The kids will get the point, and that's what good parenting is all about.