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Teaching Kids Charity and Clarity with Pre-Christmas Cleaning

Teaching Kids Charity and Clarity with Pre-Christmas Cleaning
Teaching Charity and Clarity

Today is “Black Friday”, the busiest shopping day of the year in the US and the official start of the Christmas buying season. If you have kids, that most likely means a new crop of the latest toys and video games.

The wholesale (maybe I should say “retail”) celebration of consumerism makes a lot of people anxious, with good reason. What kind of values are we modeling for our children when we embrace consumption so greedily during the Christmas season?

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And yet, children outgrow toys. Their tastes change, their abilities change, and what was appropriate last year has little to offer them next year. Unless we’re ready to embrace a toy-free childhood for our kids, I think we have to accept the yearly churn of toys, and Christmas is as good a time as any to do the turn-over.

But we do not have to accept the blind consumerism that often comes along with it. Christmastime offers an opportunity to teach children important lessons about consumption, by instituting a yearly ritual that starts with cleaning up their room.

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The idea is simple: set aside a day this weekend or next, as the Christmas season pitches into full gear, to work with your children on cleaning their rooms. This isn’t a normal room-cleaning, though. Explain to them that while they are dreaming of new toys for Christmas, there are lots of kids whose families can’t afford to give their children new toys, and that those children would be happy to have some of your kids’ toys to play with.

Set out two boxes, one for trash and one for charity, and sort their old toys into them. As you pick up each toy in their room, ask them whether they think they will still play with it next year. Then ask whether another child might enjoy it more than they would. If they aren’t playing with it anymore, or if they can bear to part with it, it goes in one of the two boxes.

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Which box is for you and our child to decide. If you have young children, this is an opportunity to teach them something of the quality of things — what it means for something to be working or not working, whole or broken. You might also be able to make a point about taking care of their things — if a toy is something they would still play with if it wasn’t broken, talk about how they might have protected it better.

Broken toys go in the trash box, and whole toys go in the charity box. You might have to second-guess a few of your children’s decisions, but for the most part, you should follow their lead. If you take too much of the decision-making responsibility out of their hands, they will start to see giving as a kind of punishment, which is obviously not the goal.

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For each toy they choose to keep, ask them where they think it should be kept in their room. Help them decide on a realistic strategy for organizing their stuff (and keeping it organized) — even if the neatness doesn’t last, the lessons of categorizing and organizing will.

There are a number of benefits to this beyond just getting their rooms clean in time for the arrival of Santa’s deliveries. Making this kind of clean-sweep teaches:

  • Organization: Kids tend to have short attention spans and aren’t mentally equipped to always consider the consequences of their actions, so it might be too much to ask that they keep things organized, but they still have to be taught how to organize if they’re ever going to learn. Getting them to categorize their toys — “keep”, “give”, “throw out” — helps them develop the mental capacities to understand why things have places in which they belong.
  • Charity: Teaching children to take responsibility for giving also helps teach them to take responsibility for others and to recognize their own relative privilege.
  • Empathy: Children — heck, many adults, too — have a hard time imagining the way that their lives differ from other people’s lives. Getting them to imagine a life without their favorite toys, or a life without a gift-bedecked Christmas tree, helps them learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — an important lesson for almost every aspect of their later lives.
  • Contemplation: Getting into the habit of annually reviewing one’s possessions and their meaning helps counteract the raw consumerism that surrounds us at Christmastime. It teaches children to look at themselves and their lives — again, an important lesson for a balanced adulthood.
  • Counter-consumerism: I’m not preaching anti-consumerism, here — it’s pretty much inevitable that our children’s lives will be shaped by consumerism. But we can teach them to create a critical and reflective relationship with their own consumption, so that they learn to build identities that are not determined by what they buy. Thinking about the relationship between need and possession — e.g. “Do I want this toy because I actually play with it or just because it’s mine?” — can help put them on that path.

After filling up your charity box (or boxes), load them in the car and take them to a local charity with your children. You might have todo a little research to decide where to give your toys — things that are new and in their packages can go to Toys for Tots, toys that are not new but are still in good shape can go to a local shelter, religious organization, or other relief organization. Thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army sell toys to raise money for their other activities, which means that you cannot be sure a needy child will benefit from your children’s charity, but if you can’t find anything else locally, they are a fine last alternative.

With an afternoon’s work — and family togetherness, which is nothing to sneeze at! — you can teach some valuable lessons to your children and help out someone else’s children at the same time. And, if nothing else, you’ll have cleared up some space in their rooms for the new arrivals come Christmas.

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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