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Jewish World Review /Dec. 28,1998 /9 Teves 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

The gift of giving

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IT WAS NOT EXACTLY A HOLIDAY MOMENT. Scanning the local section of my newspaper this morning, I gasped.

"What upset you, Mommy?" asked my 7-year-old.

Suddenly, I faced the sort of home vs. world question we grapple with from time to time. Reacting instinctively, I told Jonathan that a young woman had been killed in a fire in a neighboring town. What I didn't tell him is the part that had made me recoil: The teenager's mother was under arrest on charges of arson and murder.

There are such stories in the paper almost every day, gradually eroding my sense that there is any moral order to the country anymore. A medical technician who had been asked to provide child support is found guilty of injecting his son with the AIDS virus. A 14-year-old boy kills his 12-year-old sister after years of extreme sibling rivalry. A mother who had killed her infant and lost custody of two other children is awarded custody of a fourth child.

It is a reflex to shield our kids from the horror that is in the world.

Deciding just how much to reveal, and when, is a delicate process. And it isn't entirely within our control.

My two older sons are just emerging from the cocoon of early childhood into the wider world. For 5-year-old David, the word evil, though invoked all the time, is tame and abstract. The monsters on "Power Rangers" are evil. It is glorious to fight evil. But as to the contours of true evil, he is blessedly ignorant.

My children, thank G-d, live in a world remote from trouble, strife (except with one another) and (thus far) misfortune. But just as I don't want their spirits to be crushed by a too-early introduction to horror and cruelty, I am also mindful, particularly at this time of year, of competing dangers. Not only is there a danger that the gross immorality of late 20th century life will intrude on their youthful idyll, there is an immediate threat that they may become spoiled by abundance.

The newspapers have been full of stories this Hanukkah and Christmas season of the superfluity of toys in the lives of most American children. We may love capitalism and the good life it makes possible, but we also want our children to be like the hero of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," who is practically starving but nonetheless wants to share his morsel of chocolate with his family.

After much thought and debate, my husband and I have decided that there is no practical way to prevent our children from being showered with presents at Hanukkah time. Aunts, uncles, cousins, baby sitters, and even we would feel deflated if the holiday didn't come with lots of pretty, beribboned boxes. The key thing, we decided, is not how much they have but whether they are grateful. Those of us up from the humble middle class are new to this principle. Our parents were as far from noblesse oblige as they were from chauffeur-driven limousines. But those of us in the huge new upper middle class -- driving mini-vans, not limousines -- do have to consider instilling a habit of gratitude in our pampered children.

Yesterday, our three boys, along with two friends from school, visited a women's shelter. Each child was carrying a large, wrapped gift for the children whose moms were in no position to buy presents. We talked to them first about why some people are poor and discovered that it's not easy to explain. "If they have no money, why don't they just go to the cash machine?" asked David. And so we talked about how one earns money and how accidents, bad fortune and, yes, evil can reduce people to temporary penury.

We delivered the gifts into the hands of a pleasant administrator, but I wasn't sure the visit had accomplished much. There were no Dickensian orphans staring up at us. In fact, there were no women or children visible at all.

Only later, when David was explaining to his uncle why they were not getting presents at all on the eighth night of Hanukkah did I sense that my mission was a success. "Did you know," he asked "that there are children who wouldn't have any presents at all?"

And to all a good night.

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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.