All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1988

Preserving the Joy of Giving

Kenneth Bisson, M.D., has practiced family medicine in a rural Indiana community for the past eight years.

The bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution served as a wonderful opportunity to explore the ideals of limited representative government with my oldest son, Adrian, who is in the third grade. He had enjoyed participating in a local writing competition called “Young Authors,” so I suggested we work together on a book. We drafted a children’s book to convey some of the principles of the Constitution to an elementary reader.

Our plot involved the adventures of some young Americans developing the rules for their friendship club as their parents gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. This was an exercise in explaining individual fights and how they need to be protected from an unrestrained democracy. I realized how committed he was to those ideas when he came home from school quite irritated one December day.

It is customary in our local school to have a Christmas gift exchange among classmates. Those choosing to participate buy a $1.50 gift and, upon providing this for a classmate, receive a gift purchased by another student.

As a way of expanding the joys of holiday giving, Adrian’s teacher proposed the following to the class: They could make a charitable gift of the money they would otherwise spend on a classmate’s gift and instead bring a wrapped discarded toy from home for a “junk exchange.” She also proposed that each student make a contract with his or her parents to earn the $1.50. The class accepted these proposals, which seemed splendid to me.

The joy of giving depends on its voluntary nature. Webster’s dictionary defines gift as, “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” For gifts to exist, property fights must be recognized. One must personally own the thing being transferred for it to qualify as a gift. Thus, the students’ decision to earn the donated money was important.

The choice of the recipient must remain with the giver. He may delegate that choice (as with general contributions to United Way), but a transfer of property to an unintended recipient is not a gift. If you are delivering cash collected for United Way and a masked gunman “persuades” you to deliver it instead to him, you are not giving him a girl. Even if he uses the funds to help his needy family, you would not experience the joy of giving from such a coerced transfer.

The harmony of voluntary giving becomes disrupted when the conditions of the transfer are coerced. It was the method of choosing the recipient that bothered Adrian. The class suggested the local Humane Shelter and African Famine Relief as potential recipients. Discussion began and the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives were raised. Some wondered whether their “hard-earned” money would actually bring food to the hungry Africans. Apparently they had heard of diversions of some previous famine aid. Adrian was certain he wanted his gift to go to the Humane Shelter.

The teacher decided that the choice should be made by a vote of the class. The choices offered were: 1) all the money would go to the Humane Shelter, 2) all the money would go to African Famine Relief, or 3) the money would be divided equally between these two causes. Choice three received the most votes and the class was told that half of their donation would go to each cause.

Adrian remembered from our book that “majority rule” is an inappropriate way to make many decisions. He felt it wasn’t right for others to determine the destination of his gift. This experience had a happy ending. Upon Adrian’s suggestion, the teacher permitted each contributor to give his or her donation to either cause in the proportion each student preferred. The potential conflict that was produced by requiting a collective decision was removed. The harmony fostered by allowing individual choice was restored to the holiday giving.

Adrian also became motivated to complete a writing assignment which was due that week. He used the idea from one chapter of our book to write his story. With his permission, I have reproduced it here for you.

Martha’s Blueberries

by Adrian Bisson

One day a long time ago there was a group of children who decided to have a club. Their names were Tom, Martha, Bill, John, Rebecca, and Jim. Soon it was time for a club meeting. So they all met by the clubhouse. Just as they were about to start the meeting they realized that Martha wasn’t there. Martha had been in the woods picking blueberries. When she realized that she was late for the meeting she ran as fast as she could to the clubhouse. When she got there Tom saw the blueberries and said, “Why don’t we vote to see if we should eat Martha’s blueberries.” Everyone except Martha smiled and nodded. So Tom said, “Everybody who wants to eat all of Martha’s blueberries raise your hand.” Everybody raised their hand except Martha. Suddenly Martha cried, “It isn’t fair to take away what I worked so hard to pick.” After thinking about it for a while the others agreed and they finished their meeting.

From this experience the children learned that things should not always be decided by majority rule.