The kids and I were in the car. We pull up next to a stop light. NPR on the radio. Quiet girl banter in the backseat of my mini-van. I’m zoning out. Thinking about tomorrow’s dinner, or this weekend’s schedule, or something – anything – other than what’s going on outside my car.
From the backseat, A. loudly begs for my attention. Pulling me away from my afternoon daze.
A: “Mommy, MOMMY! WHY is that man standing on the street with a sign?”
Me: “What?” Noticing for the first time panhandler standing next to our stopped car with a sign asking for money.
Me: “Well, he is asking people for money.”
A: “Why? Does he need money to buy a house?”
Me: “I don’t know. But I’m guessing he needs money to buy food. Some people don’t have enough money to buy food every day.”
A. thought for a while. A: “Did you have to stand on the side of the street with a sign to get money to buy our house?”
A: “Why not?”
A series of thoughts crossed through my head. Because I grew up in a good community; a good family? Because I was fortunate enough to get good jobs? Because I worked? Because I saved enough? Because my husband worked? Because interest rates were low? Because we waited until we were 34 to buy our first house? All of these were part of the answer, but none of them were the correct answer.
Me: “Well, because we were lucky. And mommy and daddy went to a LOT of school. That helps when you want to buy a house. ”
A. was unsatisfied with that answer. She couldn’t understand what school had to do with buying a house. She couldn’t understand why someone would stand by the side of the road to ask for money. So I tried to convince her that more school meant a better chance of being able to do whatever you want in your life. And oftentimes, that meant making more money to be able to afford whatever you want. That may be a house, or a car, or to be able to travel to different parts of the world.
She relented and went back to singing in the back seat.
But, man, her question was hard. Her question made me uncomfortable and I didn’t know how best to answer. I know it’s important, because I remember being her same age. So it counts. It matters how I answer.
Her question also made me think that is not only what I say, but what I do. If I want to raise a child with empathy and compassion, I need to display those acts myself. Daily. Even if sometimes it’s hard, or uncomfortable. So the next time I drive by I promised myself I would bring a granola bar, or a bottle of water for the guy with the sign.