A few weeks ago, my family and I left our favorite restaurant after a wonderful meal, our bellies replete with green chile-smothered enchiladas.   The only food ordered but not eaten was my daughter’s, as she had been more interested in playing peek-a-boo with a girl at the neighboring table than in consuming her substantial bean and cheese burrito.

As we were about to get into the car, a woman approached and asked, in a near inaudible voice, whether we could help her out.  She looked cold and miserable: face sunburned, hair unwashed and scraggly, clothes soiled and smelling faintly of urine.

I was immediately struck by the idea that this would be an excellent opportunity to teach my older daughter (almost three) about the importance of helping others and sharing with the less fortunate. ‘Tis the season, after all, and we’d already broached the topic due to a recent food drive at her school.

“You’re welcome to have this burrito,” I said, and eagerly put the food in the woman’s ungloved hands.

Meanwhile, my daughter, who was standing next to me, looked up in disbelief as the telltale quiver inched across her lip.  “That’s my food!” she said in a whine that quickly escalated to a crescendo of tears.  “Noooooo!”

“Sweetie,” I said as I bent down to talk to her, “that woman needed the food more than we did.  She was hungry and didn’t have anything to eat,” I tried to explain.  “I’ll make you another burrito when we get home.”

When it was clear that she didn’t much care about the woman’s empty belly, I switched gears and tried to reflect back what she said: “I know you want your food back.  You didn’t want me to give it to her; you’re angry.”  But it was too late; the damage was done, the tears could not be tamed by reason or empathy or the offer of another burrito.

All that mattered to her was that she had experienced a loss, and that it had been at the hands of her mother.  Ouch.

I had assumed that she didn’t really want the burrito, given that she scarcely touched it in the restaurant.  In fact, I took it home thinking that I would eat it for lunch the next day.  But in her eyes, I had stolen something that rightfully belonged to her.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, so let me elaborate on the lessons I learned so that you, dear reader, can benefit from my experience and save your child from heartbreak and yourself from a 15 minute, tear-filled car ride.

1. Do not give away something that belongs to your child without her permission; ask first. (Duh.)

2.  Model the art of giving by first parting with something that belongs to you. If your kids see you donate a possession of your own without having a major meltdown, they will understand that giving is good and tolerable.

3.  Allow your child to go through her stuff and pick out something that she would like to give away, so that she maintains some degree of control. You might have to provide guidance here, because she will likely choose the doll that’s almost as old as she is, the one that’s tattered and dismembered, with woefully little hair and arms inked with purple marker.  So perhaps you offer to help her find something a little nicer and newer, but still not so close to her heart as to require counseling (or an entire box of Kleenex) to deal with the loss.

4.  Go shopping and allow her to choose something new for a child in need. That way, she will learn that helping others can be enjoyable and safe, as opposed to threatening and gut-wrenching.  This is an especially good strategy for kids under 5, since sharing is still a fairly new skill (if it’s been mastered at all), and being asked to part with a possession can challenge a child’s sense of safety and control.  (Take it from me.)

I’m guessing that we might have a little trouble getting past the parking lot episode, since my daughter has brought it up, oh, I don’t know, maybe 88 times since it happened.  “I want my food back from that woman,” she likes to tell us.  Just in case we forgot.  Just in case we were considering a second food heist involving her quesadilla.

The bottom line?  If you want your kids to learn about the value and joy of giving, enlist their help and give them choices. Believe me, you’ll be so glad that you did.

Photo credits: 1. Nate Hardstyle; 2. Jeremy Brooks; both via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.