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Instead of a gift, wrap up a virtue for the holidays

By Polly Drew

December 21, 1997

This column is top secret and FOR KIDS ONLY. If you are a parent, don't peek. I'll give you a hint -- it involves a certain present for a certain grown-up.

If you are a kid, discreetly clip this column before your grown-up gets to it. Don't worry. the grownup will assume you are being diligent and doing a school project.

Now, about the gift you need to produce -- soon. Dad's putt-retriever and mom's much-needed day trip to the spa are too expensive. I know... your grown-up says all he wants for Christmas is for you to be respectful, get decent grades, and keep your room clean. Sounds good, but how do you wrap THAT up and put it under the tree?

I've got a plan. There's this book called "The Family Virtues Guide" (Plume, 1997) and it's loaded with just the kind of stuff your parents are always trying to teach and preach to you. Such as: compassion, humility, justice, loyalty, modesty, patience, tact, truthfulness and 44 other virtues. There's one virtue to practice for each week of the year -- a great habit to start in 1998.

The book does not have any agenda of dogma or faith. You and your parents can be Christian, Jewish, Baha'i, Islamic, Buddhist or simply spiritual to get what this book has to offer, which is the wisdom of morality.

The author, Linda Kavelin Popov, describes family virtues as the silver thread that runs through all of humanity. Virtues are qualities of the soul.

Here's how the book works. Let's take a virtue like "generosity." (That's a nice holiday-type virtue.) First, there is a quote drawn from one of the world's many religions, such as the next quote from a sacred Hindu text.

Generosity: "The gift which is given without thought of recompense, in the belief that it ought to be made, in a fit place, at an opportune time, and to a deserving person -- such a gift is pure."

-- Bhagavad-Gita 17:20

OK, that's confusing, so the book explains exactly what generosity is.

"Generosity is giving and sharing. It is giving freely because you want to, not with the idea of receiving attention, a reward, or a gift in return... Generosity is a quality of the spirit. It is an awareness that there is plenty for everyone."

This is not a shabby piece of information to have -- especially when your brother or sister will, no doubt, whine that he or she didn't get exactly what was expected from Santa. But, you'll know better. Next, the book goes on to argue why it's important to practice generosity.

"... In a world without generosity, every gift would have a string attached. Every gift would come with conditions that would enable the giver to gain something and manipulate for his own advantage... That is not giving. Giving freely and fully is contagious. When one person is generous, it touches other people's hearts and they want to be generous, too ... "

The third step in the book gives concrete suggestions on how to practice generosity:

Recognize a person or group that needs or deserves your help.

Look for things to share that mean something to you: time, knowledge, things or money.

Don't look for anything in return. Just give freely and let it go. Feel good because you have given generously.

Finally, "The Family Virtues Guide" shows you signs of success so that you and your family can recognize when you all are practicing what you are learning. You are practicing generosity when you:

Are willing to sacrifice for others.

Use wisdom about sharing treasured belongings.

But, so you don't screw up, the author gives examples of pitfalls to watch out for. You are NOT practicing generosity if you:

Give only things that do NOT matter to you.

Hold on to the gift, after it is given, with conditions about how it should be used.

Keep reminding people that you gave -- or expect something in return for sharing.

Hmm ... I know some adults, including this one, who don't always remember these pitfalls. (Example: We adults have been known to pass off last year's fruitcake as this year's gift.)

I've done your homework for you, too. Area bookstores have plenty of these books in stock and they'll even wrap them.

It'll cost a few weeks allowance, $14.95, and it won't clean your room. But after learning about cleanliness, orderliness and self-discipline, room-cleaning should be no problem for you as the Master of Virtues. I guarantee -- your grown-up will love this holiday treat.

Polly Drew is a marriage and family therapist in Mequon. Write to her at: P.O. Box 11377, Milwaukee, WI 53211 or contact her via e-mail at: Her reader contact number is: (414) 223-2585, Ext. 3108. Unfortunately, individual letters cannot be answered.

©Copyright 1997, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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