How My Own Kid Schooled Me on Being Human

How do you explain homelessness to a 6-year-old and, more importantly, what do you do?

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Not all humans are outside on purpose.

You might dread from your child that question about the birds and bees, but at least that one has a scientific explanation. How do you explain the basic concept of homelessness to a 6-year-old?

When he asks you why a person is standing outside on a blistering hot day asking for money, saying “he’s homeless” really doesn’t cut it. A typical 6-year-old has no context for that concept. Homeless? What does that mean?

You need a explanation that communicates the appropriate compassion but also lets you off the hook for why you aren’t stopping and giving him any money when he’s asking for it. And you need a way to not go into the socio-econimic challenges or a (one sided, because he’s six) discussion about the so-called welfare state that you use to justify your frequent inaction. Explaining homelessness gets complicated fast, folks.

And so one of my recent greatest parenting challenges came as we passed a homeless man on a highway exit and my 6-year-old son asked me “why is that man holding a sign?”

I gave it my best shot. “That man is asking for help because he maybe doesn’t have any money for food or a place to live. He’s asking because he needs help.” I stammered a little. I was worried about what might happen next.

And that’s when it came. It hit me right in the guilt spot, too. You know, that part of your gut where you know what the right thing to do is, but you’ve pushed it down for so long that ignoring it is second nature. … until, that is, the Essence of Innocence points it out to you.

“We should give him some food,” Dave said.

He didn’t assume that we were purposefully not giving him food (which is, essentially, what we were doing by continuing to drive). He made the statement as if it was the most natural proclamation world. And he made it under the assumption that I had probably not thought of it — not that I was driving away as if the whole thing were not in the least my problem.

But that’s the thing: even if the selfish, busy part of me didn’t want it to be, his really was the most natural proclamation in the world.

I’m not the smartest person or the best parent, but I do know a teaching moment when it bludgeons me over the head. And so I took a hint from my kid. We paused our errands, pulled into a drive through, bought a chicken meal and a bottle of water and drove back to where the man had been standing. Since he was on the exit ramp of the highway in a direction we could not go, I parked the car, helped my son get out, and walked with him to the man.

“We got this for you,” Dave told him. He handed it to him, smiled, and that was that.

Fact: I had been ignoring a desire to help the homeless in our area for a long time. Like so many Americans, I’m good at walking way from that stuff. But buried deep under the guilt spot was always the nagging memory of my friend Kryste, a perfectly normal person in Washington State who has made it her problem. This sort of giving such a habit that she uses funds from non-profit she founded, Live Your Love Loud, to help make giving the homeless help a reality.

When Kryste’s husband, CW3 Frank Buoniconti, was killed in a helicopter training accident over Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, she helped herself move through the grief by helping others. Thanks to the fairly mild climate in Washington, homelessness is a major problem there. Since giving cash isn’t always the most practical option, Kryste and her kids put together care kits — bags of useful items, snacks and water — for the homeless they encounter daily. She keeps them in her car, and when she sees someone in need, she has something helpful to give them.

And so as I drove away, I knew what we had to do. We can’t always stop what we are doing and drive through a restaurant for a meal. But we can always take the time to roll down the window (or get out of the car and walk over if safe), say a kind word and hand someone a kit. That is not too much to ask, really.

So Dave and I went to work. I made sure he was with me when we bought items for the kits at the grocery store. I helped him put 20 kits together in an assembly line process — first water, then a Chapstick, then baby wipes, then one snack, then another. Done. I helped him load them into the car.

When my kid asked me about homelessness, I knew we couldn't just stand by. Here's what we did instead.
Dave holds two of the care kits he assembled.

And I watched his face in the rearview mirror after we handed the first bag to the first man we saw thereafter holding a sign.

Often, when adults do something nice for someone else, their faces hold at the corner of their mouths a slight tinge of self righteousness, a silent but sure acknowledgement that they just did the right thing and they know it.

But until they are taught to ignore it, not doing the most basic right thing for another human isn’t even a question to a child. If someone is hungry, of course you help them eat. If someone is cold, of course you give them a coat. And I can see the ready questions on Dave’s innocent face. Why wouldn’t you help someone? Why would you walk away from them? How is that OK?

To me being human means taking the time to enjoy the world around me, breathing in everything it has to offer and allowing myself to be centered on more than just the crazy of all the requirements put on myself, by myself.

But thanks to Dave, I am reminded that it also means taking time to reach out and touch other humans, too, no matter who they are and regardless of whether or not their problems meet my standards of “real.” Who am I to question that? Shouldn’t my job be to simply give?

The lesson from Dave is that the human default should be compassion — and that there is always time to reach it.

here is always enough time and money and love to push back into the world.

May we all have the innocence and simple humanity of Dave.


Want to make your own care kits? Buy gallon-size ziplock bags, fill them with a few snacks, a bottle of water and a few other useful items like baby wipes or a Chapstick, and keep them in your car. When you see a person in need, give them one. It’s as easy as that. You can also check out Kryste and Live Your Love Loud on their Facebook page. 


Feature photo courtesy of the fabulous Creative Commons and Flickr user Jim Fischer, under the Creative Commons license.

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