Week 26: Salvation Army Angel Tree Program – Practicing Empathy Skills With My 4 Year Old Grandson

I wanted to include my grandson Jason in a few charitable activities this holiday season. He’s 4 years old, cute as a button and has more energy than a wild bronco, so I needed to find something that was both active and would make sense to him. The Salvation Army Angel Tree program fit perfectly.

The Angel Tree program provides gifts of new clothing and toys to thousands of children angel tagwho otherwise may not have anything for Christmas. Recipient children are from families who have applied for Christmas assistance through the Social Services program of The Salvation Army. If you are not familiar with the program, during the application process, clothing size, gift wishes and special needs of children are determined and written onto paper “angels.” The child’s first name, age and gender are added, as is a code which corresponds to the family’s application number. The angels are then taken to public shopping malls, libraries and other high-traffic areas so that passers-by can choose an angel, buy items from the wish list and then return the unwrapped, new items to the collection site. Companies can also participate in groups by requesting packs of numbers/angels.


I am fortunate that my workplace – Wiss & Company – participates in the program every year so it was super-easy to participate. I really wanted Jason to connect with the activity so I chose a boy (Christopher) who was close to his age. Christopher’s wish list included Legos, Thomas the Train, toy cars and a host of other items that Jason would also love to receive.


IMG_1930The night before shopping we (Jason’s mom and I) sat down with him to talk about the activity. We told him we were going to do something special for someone and framed the discussion with open-ended questions around what it means to be thankful. Because he’s 4 we related it to things that make him happy and he supplied ideas like toys, reading books with mommy and daddy, helping his GiGi & PopPop, etc. We wrote down his list. Of course playing with toys was on his “thankful” list and that led to a conversation about how some children may not have toys to play with. He wanted to know why and so we had a brief conversation about that.


We also asked him how he would feel if he did not have toys (“Sad”). Then we related it IMG_1931outward by asking other children would feel with no toys (“Sad”).  So we asked what he thought we could do to help. He had some cute ideas including visiting the children so he could play with them, sharing toys with them, etc. and we agreed that we would help buy toys for someone to make them happy. I gave him the Angel tag and talked about Christopher’s age and wish list and explained that the next day we would go shopping for toys for Christopher.


The next day we did our shopping. In the morning we agreed with Jason that the day was focused on Christopher, not on buying anything for Jason. Jason was on board but I was a bit worried about the reality of walking into toy stores and buying things for another child without picking anything up for Jason. But I should not IMG_1934have worried. Jason got into shopping for Christopher, trying to add things not on the list like airplanes and scooters. We did end up with an extra stuffed animal because Jason was adamant Christopher needed him for cuddling at night. How could I refuse?


During the day Jason mentioned to more than one store clerk that he was buying toys for his friend Christopher who was “really nice and fun.” VERY cute! 123_1











At the end of the day we set out all the toys and told Jason he did such a great job sharing love! We told him Christopher will have a special Christmas with these toys and that he did a very nice thing for someone. I’m not sure how much it stuck but before bed Jason was asking questions about Christopher such as “do you think his mommy and daddy read to him?” so I suppose the day had some impact!


I know it is going to take more than one activity a year for giving and charity to become part of the routine, but the holiday is a perfect time to practice and build a child’s skills of empathy and compassion. Here are a few tips to consider when thinking about charitable activities for children:


  • Make it age relevant – for example, young children don’t understand the value of money or the connection between money and gifts, but older children may and could use a portion of their allowance to donate.
  • Make it interest-relevant – they’ll connect better if the activity is tied into something they like to do.
  • Make it action-oriented – give them a direct role in whatever you choose to do.
  • Make it year-round – add mini acts of charity to your regular routines throughout the year – help clean a neighbor’s yard, add a few extra canned or boxed goods into your cart at the supermarket for the local food pantry, draw cards for the local retirement home, etc.
  • Start new traditions – make doing something charitable as a family part of your major family celebrations and holidays.
  • Tell why – participating in the activity is wonderful but help your children understand why they are helping.


I’m looking forward to doing charitable activities throughout the year with Jason and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to share these lessons with him. I think it’s a great way to build special memories together!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!!




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