Blog Template Theology of the Body: Generosity

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I took a survey today while my little one was napping. The poll, which was attached to an online article offering suggestions on how to foster "generosity and sharing" in children, asked parents to identify the top values that they would like to instill in their tots. Parents were asked to choose between empathy, responsibility, respect, honesty, and yes, generosity.

I didn't choose responsibility; history's greatest villains have shown us that a person can act in downright evil ways, and still be sure to get the job done expeditiously, with great responsibility.

Respect? Super important, especially according to Maria Montessori, but my little one is two. I'd rather first cultivate a sense of fearlessness and adventure right now, rather than the prudence, caution and restraint that must come with future social training and a certain loss of innocence. For instance, my baby is slowly learning to behave reverently in Mass (sometimes), but this is mainly because she actually seems to love Jesus and is intrigued by His presence on the altar. It's not because, at two, she has developed great consideration for other worshippers and their cultural norms and expectations- which, for now, is fine with me. Respect involves a degree of healthy fear, and fear is not healthy for expanding toddler sensibilities and intelligence.

Honesty? That's great too, but my little one will someday learn, with her aforementioned social training, that not everything true must be spoken. One can be very honest and still behave cruelly and without charity.

I faltered a little at empathy, because that's just a very Christian virtue, but it's our modern context that has over-promoted it as such, and so I moved on.

I chose generosity. Because my foremost task is to prepare Caeli for Heaven. Secondly, it's to promote her well being and her happiness. She will get to Heaven by pouring her life into God and others, as the saints have shown us, as God incarnate and crucified showed us. And in so doing, she will be happy. Done. Selection made.

To my surprise, this poll's results showed my selection to be a vastly unpopular one. "Respect" led the way at 38%. "Honesty" ranked in at 20%, and "Empathy" and "Responsibility" were tied at 19% each (forgive me, but that's so very, very, provincially American). My favored "Generosity" staggered in at 4%. Which, perhaps, is why this fun little poll was attached to a ten point article on teaching modern American kids to "share."

What makes me so sad about this statistic is this: of all the other virtues, real generosity can't really be trained or tutored. You can fake empathy and you can enforce honesty, responsibility, and respect. But generosity has to be experienced. We love because we have been loved first. We share because we have been given something. We reach out because we have been made whole, comforted.

So is this stat a commentary on modern parenting? I think so. When I was preparing for my baby's birth I was inundated with philosophies of parenting that had much to do with the importance of "drawing boundaries" between the parents and the child, the "dangers" of losing one's self in motherhood, the absolute importance of tiny helpless infants gaining "a sense of self sufficiency and independence" (which, I think, can be ridiculous). The problem is that the prioritization of these proposals does not require the practice of generosity as a parenting style. And little ones learn what they live, as the saying goes. If they are raised among the priorities of self sufficiency and impervious boundary- drawing, we ought not be surprised when they mind their own interests first and refuse to share their stuff, and refuse to behave like givers, sharers, empathizers. We ought not be surprised if, later in life, they draw strong boundaries around their adult interests, "refuse to lose themselves" in caregiving, and, insisting on the independence and self sufficiency of their ailing elderly, they install their forgotten, aging parents in nursing homes (I'll readily admit that a lot of my parenting style has to do with the fact that when I am a very old woman, and frail and dependent, I don't want to be left to cry it out and self-soothe in a crib with a monitor).

What ultimately saddens me most about this little poll result is that I think it reflects the diminution of our sense of the awesome responsibility and gift of motherhood. Motherhood, of it's very nature, is pure generosity. In the creation, the mother IS the giver par excellence, the paradigm of sharing. Her utterly dependent baby comes from, grows from her body, in utero and without. The child's brain is formed by the intonation and content of her speech and the frequency of her touch. This is, per se, the life of giving. Of its very nature, motherhood has amazingly little to do with drawing boundaries and preserving personal interests and identities, particularly when it is done well. And we fail to honor this and celebrate it when we relegate motherhood and child raising to a set of practices that are understood in terms of "responsibility, honesty, and empathy" rather than the sheer joy of giving.