Every December, parents like me lament the "gimme" culture that so easily overtakes the holidays. But with environmental and social-justice issues gaining ground, introducing your child to alternative gifts can make a world of difference. Even little changes—adding one charity to your giving tradition, for example—can have a profound impact on how your child approaches the holidays. (Note: Kids can smell guilt-mongering a mile away, so don't make your child feel bad about wanting stuff. Only cheerful giving makes a lasting difference.) This year, tap into a deeper joy by embracing altruistic and earth-friendly gift ideas.
Reframe the list. Rather than a blanket prohibition on traditional gifts, consider asking your child to name the two or three items he or she most wants to receive. Then gently turn the focus outward by generating a new list, asking, "What do you love the most?" Aside from the obvious ("Cookies!" "My iPod!"), try to capture your child's fondness for certain things: animals, people, hobbies, whatever. Then ask, "How can we give a gift to that?" For example, if your daughter says "bears," ask if she'd like to give money to help protect panda or grizzly habitats. Play up your son's fondness for tree forts by donating to a tree-planting group. There are endless ways to creatively encourage giving to a cause that matters to your child.
Go eco. When nothing but a tangible gift will do, scour natural shops, where you'll find high-quality items made with the planet's and your child's health in mind. Options abound: Adorable, organic stuffed animals and nontoxic wooden toys make babies and toddlers smile; and even picky teens might appreciate a sustainable-harvest bamboo skateboard (reportedly stronger than conventional wheelers), or trendy organic-fiber apparel. Also, consider trolling high-end consignment stores for barely used (and cost-conscious) clothes and toys. And then encourage low-impact wrappings, such as cloth napkins, kitchen towels, or the old standby: the Sunday comics.
Give and do good. When shopping, look for fair-trade items, meaning producers were paid honest wages for their wares. Jewelry, chocolates, toys, and more can be sourced from fair-trade outfits, such as World of Good or BeadforLife. The nifty, solar-powered BOGO (Buy One-Give One) flashlight does more than illuminate your keyhole; for every light purchased, another is donated to a needy community in the developing world. And when you buy the UN World Food Programme's reversible burlap and muslin FEED bag, proceeds feed one impoverished child for one school year; it's available at www.amazon.com.
Volunteer. Go back to the list you generated with your child and pick something you can do together in your town, as a gift to your family's place in the world. Do your kids love outings near the water? Spend an hour picking up trash along a local shoreline or creek. Do they enjoy the company of other kids? Have them box up gently used or new clothes, books, and toys and deliver them to a family shelter (yes, children are homeless too). Whatever you do, make it your child's choice. You'll likely find that altruistic giving is a lot like cooking: Once your kids get involved, they'll eat it up.