"Why Don't We Give to That Homeless Person?"

Parenting expert Jan Faull, Med, on how parents can tackle the touchy subject of helping the less fortunate without creating a double-standard.

Q. My girls are almost 3 years old and are starting to ask me questions about the people we see holding up signs at freeway on-ramps asking for jobs, food, money -- and I am unsure how detailed I should get when answering their questions. I tell them that there are ways our family does give to people and organizations -- toys, clothes, money -- but they want to know why I am not helping that person holding the sign right now. What should I say?

A. So why do you choose not to give to the person standing on the freeway on-ramp? Whatever your reason, explain it to your girls in as simple terms as possible. They won't totally grasp your reasoning and they may even feel you're being unkind. Many situations in life are complicated and confusing for children to grasp. It will be years before your children will fully understand your approach to philanthropy, so just continue to live and to explain your values and strategy.

But realize that it would be okay, when you approach a panhandler, to give your girls a little cash for the needy person. Just as children are happiest when they receive instant gratification for their desires, they want to instantly gratify the homeless person and thus gain a little of the good feeling one gets from giving to others.

As an adult you know that the quarter or dollar they give the panhandler is not solving the problem of homelessness and poverty. Therefore your conversation needs to continue after you've satisfied your children's need to give.

Make Giving a Family Routine

So how do you show kindness and generosity to the less fortunate?

  • You certainly do so with some of your tax dollars. As your children get older, explain how much or what percentage of your income goes to taxes, and how much of that the government spends on programs for the homeless and hungry.
  • If you write a check every month or year to an agency that provides services to people so they won't be forced to panhandle, let your children see you write that check and then take them to the agency so they can actually witness how your contributions help.
  • When you volunteer your time at a shelter or soup kitchen once a week, month, or year, bring your children along to help. There's no better way to instill your values than to demonstrate them to your children and underline their importance with a simple, clear explanation: "I'd like you to come with me. I'm taking this casserole to a shelter. I'm giving food and money to a shelter where homeless people can eat for free."
  • When you see a homeless person begging for money as you're stopped before entering or exiting the freeway, if it bothers you and your children to drive by, you can with compassion mention a soup kitchen or shelter in the neighborhood. Doing so will relieve your guilt and demonstrate a viable alternative for helping the less fortunate.
  • Before leaving your home, you, with you girls helping, can pack a few sandwiches to offer the homeless people standing by the freeway asking for money. With this approach you know that your handout is going directly to the place -- the person's stomach -- you want your donation to go.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, December 2005.

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