When I was a trainee at the IOP (Institute of Psychiatry, now Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience), we had a great set of lectures on altruism. This being the IOP it started with discussions in rats and monkeys before proceeding to humans, but the main conclusion of it all in my memory was that true altruism is exceedingly rare and the majority of altruism is self-serving. I understood this immediately as I had done a lot of volunteer charity work in my youth with disadvantaged children, children with disabilities, the elderly and the homeless and knew in my heart that although I was doing it partly because I enjoyed it, a significant part was related to being able to put it on my CV for medical school applications where demonstrating that you had “concern, compassion and ability to connect with people from all walks of life” was an asset. It also made me feel good and virtuous to help others, as well as to be smug and tell others about it. How many secret millionaires would there be if they actually remained secret and were not being filmed by a TV crew and allowed to reveal their true identity on national TV at the end of the programme?
Still, although I remain a sceptic of altruism, giving to others, whether truly altruistic or completely self-serving is still a good thing, and at worst is a win-win situation for both parties. Much is made in the media of the children of this generation being “consumed by materialism”, an iwant generation as opposed to ican generation. Sitting with the kids watching TV at breakfast time (yes, I let my children do this – so sloppy aren’t I?) it’s easy to relate to this as every time an advert is shown (shiny bow and diamante bedecked shoes that cost as much as mine, voice activated diaries, crass game where poop comes out of a dog, crass game where snot comes out of a plastic kid’s head and so on) my kids jump up and down shouting “I want that, I want that!”. “I’m not getting it for you” I say. “You don’t have to” they shout, knowing I am as tight-fisted as they come, “We’ll ask Father Christmas!” Poor, innocent kids; Father Christmas is as tight as their mother!
It was my dislike of this “I-want-something-for-nothing” attitude as well as the swelling pile of toys building up in the kids’ room spilling over into the entire house that led me to think about exposing the children to giving to charity and what a good thing this would be. As Lil Bro was to be joining Big Sis at Big School, I decided that it was time to clear out the “baby” stuff and bring in the “desks” for homework. We would have a sale and give the proceeds to charity. As it was the kids’ stuff, and I wanted them to be involved, they chose the charity. As much as I tried to steer them towards a lovely mental health charity, or the Teenage Cancer Trust, they chose the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Not my first preference, but still a great charity, and the best part was that it was their choice.
Clearing stuff out is never as easy as it sounds. Out went the mini trampoline, slide, tables and chairs, toy kitchens, easels, ride-along-animals, books, games, puzzles, soft toys, bedding, clothes and so on into the “sale room” (the study). Back came the books, games, puzzles, soft toys, kitchen utensils into the kids’ room with proclamations of “I love that. I still play with that!” – despite never having touched it or shown any inclination of reading it in the past year. And it wasn’t just the children. I would come across a baby rattle – of no good use to us now, but with memories of my having bought it especially for my new baby girl and of shaking it at her and making her giggle for the first time. Or a board book I had bought especially for Lil Bro as the dinosaur shared his name and that we had read together over and over. It wasn’t just the children that kept some of the items that really should have been passed on; I secretly built up a stash of sentimental keep-sakes that will probably hound our limited storage space forever.
The kids enthusiastically started to make some posters for our sale, and not-so-enthusiastically finished them. I invited a host of friends with young children to come and buy stuff with the added incentive of beers and a barbecue to help the process along. The kids helped clean their old toys. They helped to display their wares in the study as well as to show and demonstrate to the stream of toddlers coming in how to play with the different toys, and take the money for their goods. This proved a great strategy, stick a toy in a two year olds’ hand and while the kid is crying as the adult tries to prise it off them send two doe-eyed children to shake a money tin in front of them, saying “it’s only 50p and it will go to charity”. At times, I had to step in on the price-setting which was rather erratic: £37 pounds for a book and 50p for a slide, but all in all, they did a fantastic job. We didn’t quite clear the lot, but 80% of our stock was gone and we had raised £150.75 for the cats and dogs, which was not bad going. One friend who had come for a table and chairs, left with a table and chairs as well as a slide, a trampoline, books, toys and puzzles to the extent that they needed rope to tie down their boot door.
The whole experience was tiring, but thoroughly satisfying. The children were happier to part with their belongings because they knew where the money was going: to a charity that they had picked themselves. They were involved in promoting and selling their goods which will hopefully embed in their minds sales and entrepreneurial skills. We got sent lovely photos of the younger generation (toddlers) playing with their new toys so there was a sense of passing on happiness as well as the satisfaction of recycling and sparing from land-fill. Then the children got to experience altruism, giving to charity.
The best part was that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home invited us down to Battersea for a private tour of their Kennels and Cattery, with head volunteer Mike. The children got to see first-hand directly where their money would be spent. Battersea do a great job at taking in cats and dogs from all-over London, feeding and catering to their health needs, re-training them if necessary and finding them new homes. It is a testament to their work that although their dog home was full of dogs, of often “aggressive” breeds – rotweilers and staffies, there was hardly a bark to be heard – as the dogs were content. Many even popped their heads over the top of the gates to say “Hello” to us. In the beautiful newly completed Cattery which looked like a 5 star Cat Hotel, three beautiful kittens Doris, Dorothy and Dilton, siblings that reminded the children of the offspring of Tabby McTat and the Black and White Cat were being taken to a health check and in our minds I think this became synonymous with where our money was going.
I am sure that seeing and experiencing this process of giving-up your own possessions, working for money and then seeing first-hand the good that comes from it, is a healthy process in instilling altruism in children, even if the main motivation is to clear out a bedroom. And if it inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists, all the better!