`Help booklets' let children give of their time and thoughtfulness

With the approach of the holidays, children sometimes fret about gift giving. Even if they've fed nickels to their piggy banks for months, their buying power is still somewhat limited. This is when parents need to remind them that it's the thought that counts. You can show them how to give a gift of themselves, which is the best gift of all. They can give a ``help booklet'' filled with ``collectible chores'' that they'll fulfill upon request. It's a gift that can extend all year -- Grandma can collect the garden weeding in July, the leaf-raking chore in October, and snow shoveling this December or next.

The basic idea is this: Several people on the child's list receive a coupon book with offers of ``help'' that meet each individual's particular needs. This accomplishes several things at once. Figuring out what each person needs makes the child more observant of others and helps him realize just how much work Mom and Dad do. The booklet also prevents comparisons that children frequently make between gifts they've chosen for family members. (It's hard on parents and children when

the four-year-old compares her picture with the seven-year-old's and sees more technical expertise in the other's work.) Of course, this type of gift makes a child particularly proud because he knows he's being helpful.

Making the book is easy. It takes a page for each gift, with pictures illustrating each chore. The pictures can be drawn by the child or cut from a magazine. The booklets will vary in length depending on the number of chores. (A caution here: Don't let a youngster overload himself with chores, and don't let him give this type of gift to too many people. You don't want him to be so overworked that he reneges on his promises or begins to dislike helping others.)

The pictures can be stapled together, tied with yarn through holes, or just put into a giant envelope with a card. Each coupon should be signed, ``With love from. . . .'' If there's just one coupon for each month, the gift is stretched out and helping doesn't become a burden. The tough part of the coupon book is getting ideas in the first place. Parents and older brothers and sisters can help here. Together, watch the person the book is being made for -- a parent, bro thers and sisters, grandparents, or favorite neighbors. Watch what they do that the child can do for them or that the child can help them do. Write the coupons for these things.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Does Mom or Dad come home from work tired? Give a coupon for serving a pre-dinner glass of juice or having comfortable shoes waiting at the door. (This latter naturally includes storing work shoes in the proper closet.) Is dinner after work a rush hour? Even young children can set the table (or help) and can clear it afterward. If they're old enough, they can do the dishes. (That's sure to make someone happy.)

Children don't have to be particularly handy in the kitchen to know how to pack school lunches. This will save a parent some time in the early morning. Even having carrot and celery strips all washed and stored in the refrigerator is a chore well worthy of a coupon.

Other indoor helps can include cleaning shoes or sewing on buttons. Young children can help sort laundry, sweep, or shake small throw rugs. And how about watering the plants, making sure no dirt is spilled on rug or counter tops? Wiping smudges from the backs of kitchen and dining-room chairs is a tiresome task, but not too difficult for preschoolers. Very young ones can help dust by going for chair rungs and other inconveniently low places.

Running errands is always a help. Children can stamp and shut envelopes and then take them to the mailbox or the post office. They can run to the store for that one forgotten item. Or return a borrowed plate to the neighbors with thanks.

And what about a trip to the library for an older child? He can look up, check out, and deliver several books of the adult's choice. Then he could also select a few ``surprises'' in the line of recreational reading. This latter is fun for both giver and recipient.

Outdoors, there's always plenty to do. Yard care includes watering, weeding, cutting, and raking. Flowers and lawns need to be fed and vegetables need to be harvested. Washing the car or helping an older sibling to wash a bike could be a timesaver for someone. Summer also sees porches and walks that need to be swept; winter calls for snow shoveling.

People with pets can always use help walking the dog, feeding the fish, brushing the cat, or cleaning the birdcage. Even if a child isn't old enough to do these things alone, most people will enjoy the child's help -- and so will most of the pets.

A coupon gift book helps children and adults learn all over again how fortunate they are to have each other.

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