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During the holidays, many parents fret over the materialistic messages their children are exposed to. We talk to a mom and an author who together have created a children’s book and game designed to make giving back to others a fun pursuit.

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  • Sarah Linden and Tyler Knott Gregson, co-authors, North Pole Ninjas: Mission: Christmas

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Teaching kids to give back

Marty Peterson: The holiday shopping season is underway – big time – and kids are poring over catalogs, the Internet and looking around in stores for items to put on their Christmas lists. This seasonal obsession was troubling to mother of two, Sarah Linden, so she decided it was time to do something about it.

Sarah Linden: A few years ago my little kiddos were being kind of stinkers around the holidays. It seemed like everything was about what they can get and how many pieces of candy they’ll get in their advent calendar. One night I decided it had been enough and we needed to shift the focus a little bit. So Santa wrote a letter from the North Pole ninjas asking them to be a part of their team. The idea was that they would get a mission every morning to complete, a secret mission, and they would be a part of the team. The first morning they got their mission, it was to bake cookies for the neighbors. I thought they would be really upset that they didn’t have a piece of candy, but they were so excited. They got really into it and dove behind bushes and had so much fun.

Peterson: Linden decided to take her idea to a friend of her’s, an author named Tyler Knott Gregson.

Linden: He had a book, The Elf on the Shelf, sitting on his table. The kids sat down and read that book and then they looked at me and said, “Well Mom, where’s the story for the North Pole ninjas?” I looked over their heads at Tyler and said, “You need to write it right now.”

Peterson: That’s when Gregson and Linden came up with the book, North Pole Ninjas: Mission: Christmas! Gregson says that they both thought it was time to instill a sense of giving – rather than just getting – in their kids.

Tyler Knott Gregson: Charity has always been such a big part of both of our lives. Both of us wanted something that can aim kids more toward that in a natural and gentle way. We saw friends and friends of friends who were using the Elf on the Shelf and advent calendars and other stuff like that to oversaturate their holidays with gift giving. It disillusioned us a bit when we saw people getting Disney cruises on the seventh of December and stuff like that. We both thought that’s enough. There needs to be something better out there that in a natural way and in a fun way starts introducing the idea of giving and the idea of giving being its own reward into kids’ lives at an early age, but in a fun way rather than in an authoritarian drill sergeant kind of way.

Peterson: So Gregson got to work creating the story of the North Pole ninjas and how they have been working away at teaching kids to give back for a long time. He says that they had to come up with a history of the movement and a way to bring kids into it so they would think they were specially “chosen” for the effort.

Gregson: I just wanted it to be something that showed that this was something that had been ongoing from before Santa wrote that letter to her kids, and that this was a history and a world that had existed for a long time and that we were just now starting to hear about it. So basically the story actually serves more as a recruitment letter so sorts than it does a full origin story. We wanted to leave some of the parts of how they came to be and why they came to be, we wanted that to be mysterious. So we made it so the story is an introduction to their world, but then more a recruitment letter that they are needed to help spread some missions, and they are needed to help spread kindness. That was our whole idea. We wanted it to feel inclusive and to feel exciting, like kids were getting an opportunity to be a part of something that not everybody has known about and it’s just now starting to spread around.

Peterson: The book comes in a box with a little ninja doll and a packet of “secret missions” that the children can take on. Linden says that there are missions that are rather involved along with those that are vey simple – something for every age and ability.

Linden: They have 50 missions that are included because we wanted parents to be able to choose. I know for me some nights I have a little more energy than others and I know that the next day is going to be busier than some other days. So there are some missions that are very easy to complete, like pay five compliments to five people that you see today, or say thank you to the person bagging the groceries at the grocery store. Things that are simple that don’t require any amount of money or extra time, it’s just a shift in your focus. We wanted to make sure that the missions were easy for parents because the easier they are the more likely they’ll be to do them.

Peterson: Gregson says that some of the missions address challenges kids face every day in school and in the neighborhood.

Peterson: One of my favorites, a very simple one that you don’t need money or time or effort or any kind of anything to handle, you can do it from where you are, it’s asking the kids to sit with someone at lunch or at school that maybe doesn’t usually get sat with, or to be friends with someone that is out of their friendship circle and to be more inclusive of kids that might not get that chance very often. With bullying and kids generally being horrible from time to time to other kids, I think that is so important and it’s something that means a lot to Sarah and I too.

Peterson: Gregson says that he’s seen the devastation that can be wrought when kids are bullied in-person and online. He works with an organization called “To Write Love on Her Arms” that helps kids overcome the depression caused by bullying.

Peterson: It’s an anti-suicide charity. For some reason that specifically, that affects a lot of children in our state in Montana. In fact, we just recently found out that another, I think she is a middle schooler or maybe freshman in high school, just took her own life. For us that just cannot happen anymore. In a small, small way sitting with someone who might not ordinarily get sat with at lunch, if that helps, what a perfect thing and what an important thing. So the missions range from super easy, to — and there’s some really fun ones — there’s dropping food off at a food share and dropping coats off at a homeless shelter that you might not need. It’s exciting to think about for every one person that buys this book or every family that finds this book, that’s another cook being dropped off at a homeless shelter or another bag of food being dropped off at the food share.

Linden: Or another smile for a lonely person that doesn’t get a lot of smiles, it’s something that we’re hoping spreads.

Peterson: The idea is for any age – from the smallest ninjas to their parents and grandparents. Gregson says that he was surprised at how the adults that got into the act were just as excited as the kids.

Peterson: Our first test subjects outside of Sarah’s kids were my sisters, their husbands and their children. I have four nieces and nephews and the thing that surprised us and excited us the most was how much they got into it. My sisters called us and said this has been the most fun we’ve ever had during the holidays. She said, “It’s so fun. We get dressed up in dark clothes and we make sure we stay hidden during all of our missions. It’s so fun being sneaky.” I think they were shocked how into it they actually got. They were adding onto the missions and coming up with new ideas an then their kids starting coming up with new ideas to add on. It took off. It’s something that surprised us because at the beginning of this we thought it was probably going to be aimed at elementary school aged people. Since then we have seen adults and teenagers and high schoolers and everybody that we know that has gotten their hands on this, they run with it and they actually have a lot of fun doing it.

Peterson: Not only do the secret missions help people learn how to give, Linden says they also bring families together toward a common purpose – and add some fun to the holidays.

Linden: It’s kind of amazing how much it brings a family or a group of people together just completing those missions and being sneaky together and giggling about the mishaps that might happen along the way. That was a side effect we didn’t’ see coming with this. It’s been really fun to see just the closeness that it brings families and groups of people around the holidays instead of focusing on, “Oh shoot, we didn’t go to the store and buy the newest video game for so and so.” Instead they’re focused on bringing fun things to people who need them.

Peterson: As they said, some of the missions require the ninjas to be “sneaky” and complete their missions without taking credit. Linden says her kids learned a lot when they “snuck” into a food bank to leave some items — supposedly undercover.

Linden: When I took the kids to the food share to donate food they were trying to be really sneaky and they are so darn cute in their little hats and ninja masks. They dove behind a bush and one of the food bank employees came out and they were so sweet and excited and brought the kids back and showed them how the food bank works and where the food goes and why they have it. My kids didn’t know that before. They knew what they were doing, why they were bringing food there, but they didn’t know how it worked. It was such an amazing learning opportunity for all of us. That’s another thing we hope this teaches is community and how important that is.

Peterson: Both Sarah Linden and Tyler Knott Gregson say that they hope parents, grandparents and others will teach their children through giving that there are people in the community who are not as fortunate as they are; who need a friend and a kind word through the holidays and the rest of the year. They also hope that these “tiny opportunities” to help others will stem some of the “what do I get?” tide that is part and parcel of the Christmas and Hanukah seasons. The book, doll and missions are available now in stores and online. You can find out more about the North Pole ninjas on their website at North Pole For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpoints You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.