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angel trees & conflicts

I've always felt a little awkward about angel trees - you know, where you pick up a christmas list for a less fortunate kid and provide the gifts his family can't.

I used to cringe at seeing items like MP3 players, video game consoles, or personal TVs on the lists, stuff that I didn't even have as a kid. Looking back, I was kinda just being judgy of the poor in that regard. Maybe I never had a nintendo but that didn't mean it wouldn't have been on my christmas list, probably multiple times.

Then I read "Toxic Charity and it brought up some issues I hadn't thought about... the author of that book really discourages angel trees. The whole premise of the book is that things we do to "be good" are actually really poorly thought out, and may even be hurting the poor. He says christmas toy drives do a number of bad things:

1) Teach kids that the cool presents come from "the outside". rich people, who they'll never be. it feeds materialism too... you can't be happy with what you have within your own means.

2) Take away one of parenting's greatest joys: providing happiness for your own children. the parents can't compete with the gifts that come in from the generous toy drive participants, so why bring home anything? they're out of it, they failed.

3) The practice teaches middle-class kids that there's a separate segment of the population we just have to blindly provide for, but never talk to. "Poor people" couldn't possibly be in your school, or right next door. Generosity can't be shown by helping a friend in need. No, it has to be in an anonymous bin.

The book encouraged churches to set up thrift store type operations to provide cheaper toys to parents who couldn't afford them, or subsidize parents in buying their kids gifts. Either way, work with the family, don't just send materials down upon them.

I feel like an asshole passing up the angel tree at work, especially since we do want to teach josie to be generous. She brings cans of food to her preschool for their church food pantry, that's it so far. I support plenty of other charities, in fact I'm darn close to my percentage-of-income goal these days, which helps me feel okay about walking past them. But I still think about playing along just to be nice.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
astrogeek01
Dec. 5th, 2013 05:37 pm (UTC)
Perhaps. On the other hand, it can help kids fit in, and fitting in is important. I read a nice article about poverty which summed up why poor people do make a point of spending so that they look good - because otherwise they are seen as poor which causes all kinds of issues.

In fact, I've been thinking recently about revisiting my own thoughts on things like video games etc. Not that I want to drastically increase screen time, but I think that maybe AM is starting to miss out on some social things because of how little I let her participate in pop culture. This has nothing to do with us being poor, obviously, but I think it illustrates that social phenomenon are much harder than anything to get a solid handle on how to deal with them.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be more invested than just buying toys at Christmas, maybe the solution is to really forge a bond with someone in need. But I don't think the toy drives are just as simple as all that.

(Note: I usually buy food for the pantries, not toys; I think often toys get all the attention and food less so but we all choose our battles right?)
smittenbyu
Dec. 5th, 2013 06:42 pm (UTC)
I agree with the book and yet I bought a gift card in the giving tree at preschool! It is hard to pass and you end up feeling like a jerk somehow. There's a church that has a "toy store" that allows parents of very low income to come in with their kids and get gently used toys (at no charge). I am donating to them. It kind of is the same like the angel tree, but it gives the parent some part in the experience.
mrs_dragon
Dec. 6th, 2013 02:59 am (UTC)
"3) The practice teaches middle-class kids that there's a separate segment of the population we just have to blindly provide for, but never talk to. "Poor people" couldn't possibly be in your school, or right next door. Generosity can't be shown by helping a friend in need. No, it has to be in an anonymous bin."

So much this! I would much rather give a struggling friend/family member $500 than donate to blind charity drives. Last year we did just that. But it's that person's business to disclose if they wish so I don't generally mention it. (ETA: What I was driving at here is that it makes explaining why you aren't donating at work awkward. At least to my overexplaining self.)

I also have a HUGE problem with charity drives at work. If my employeer cared so much about these causes, why doesn't the COMPANY just donate? Right now, it pretty much amounts to a tax, they pay me, but then heavily hint at how I should spend my money. It skeeves me out.

My mom's church had a "sister church" in a poorer area of town. That was the soup kitchen we volunteered at, and they had a second hand shop that was free/very low cost that parents could buy things for their kids at all year long. During the holiday's we work a really neat event. People would donate gifts for parents and kids would be allowed to come through, pick one gift for mom and one for dad and then wrap it. It taught the kids to think about others during the holiday and so many of them were so proud to be able to shop for their parents. They put so much thought into those gifts. It was never big stuff--coffee mugs, candy, small tool sets, etc, but there was a wide selection and the staff would keep stuff back and seed the tables all day so the first kids didn't get all the best stuff. I'm pretty sure while the kids shopped the parents were getting information on other community services. The kids would also get a candy cane and a picture with Santa.

Edited at 2013-12-06 05:09 am (UTC)
altamira16
Dec. 6th, 2013 03:46 am (UTC)
The book When Helping Hurts is similar to the one that you mention here.

There are very few cases when relief as in just giving cash to people is necessary. In most cases, having people take some part in improving their condition leads to a better outcome.

Last year, we adopted a family of children from a school near where we live. Essentially, the kids had Christmas lists, and we provided a gift for each child that went to the parents so the parents could wrap them. This year, we are giving a gift to a random child from the Christmas tree in the grocery store because my husband liked that the kid wanted a science related gift. The gift was limited to up to $20 in value.

In the first case, I am pretty sure the gifts were coming from the parents so 1 & 2 go away.

One problem with assumptions 1 & 2 are that they presume some form of stable family unit and sadly, not all children have that.
ali_highland
Dec. 6th, 2013 06:57 am (UTC)
We have started a tradition to buy for families in a women's shelter, we got thank you cards the first year, that felt wrong so asked this year that that the gifts get given to the moms to wrap and give to their kids. I had assumed that was what they would have done anyway but guessed wrong.

Anonymously helping a family that can't go home because they are scared feels right.
tabloidscully
Dec. 6th, 2013 09:30 am (UTC)
Every Angel Tree I've ever participated in, the gift requests were for food and clothing. Save one. On the card, the girl wrote her dream was to be a paralegal and asked for books. Maybe I need to read that book to give it a fair shake, but one thing that jumps out at me, at least in regards to #2, is that parents who are in the picture have to voluntarily sign their children up for the program. That would seem to suggest their wish to have their children provided for outweighs any requirement that they be the ones doing so. If you go through the song and dance of having to ask for that kind of help in the first place, I'm not sure how it stands to reason such parents would assume gift giving wasn't their responsibility and just throw in the towel.

Also, this is obviously more anecdata, but when I worked in the residential home where part of creating our environment involved giving gifts to the kids for Christmas, most of them still received something from their parents. And I'm not talking a private, residential treatment center; I mean a state-run facility with kids who were one level away from juvenile detention.
sandokai
Dec. 6th, 2013 02:29 pm (UTC)
Well you could give to the angel tree but pick a kid whose wish is something you would feel good about giving.

#3 is a good point though. We talk about the poor like there's some dichotomy instead of everyone being on some spectrum...
heanie
Dec. 9th, 2013 03:57 am (UTC)
Every year our work assists 40-50 kids with their wish lists and people sign-up for kids. All of these kids are foster kids and the majority of the lists are requesting winter coats, pants, shoes, etc. There might be a few toys, but for some reason a teenager asking for a soccerball makes me a little sad. Another group takes care of another 50+ kids that are on meal assistance and then we spend the day wrapping the presents and always leaving the From tag blank. The gifts can then be from Santa, the foster parents or us.

So in the end, the "really cool gifts" end up being what I would consider basic needs or sparse toys and can be seen as coming from the outside or from their own family unit - their choice. I like that it's not just giving money blindly without knowing how an organization will utilize it and not just blindly dumping materials down upon them... these are the things the children need.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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