Helping the needy has always been in my blood. I grew up in less than desirable circumstances until I was about 8 years old and learned to appreciate the little things in life.
Long story short, I lived across the country in army tents, semi-constructed homes, small apartments and even a converted 1958 GMC school bus for a few years before my parents settled down in a traditional house.
I know what it’s like to live on potato soup, canned beans and oatmeal. I know what it’s like to get cardboard creations as Christmas gifts. Looking back, I am so thankful to everyone who helped us through those tough times. We didn’t ask to be poor. It was just the way things happened. Kind hearts made our lives a little easier.
Despite our circumstances, my parents were always inspired to help others. This instilled something in me that, to this day, I want to pass on to my children. It's one of the most important lessons in life. It can also be a complicated one.
There are those who really need help and others who need “help.” I’m talking about poverty versus abuse – abuse of of those willing to help, and often times abuse of substances. The topic is much too complex to cover in one column, but it has me thinking about how it relates to parenting.
How do we explain to our kids the difference between helping someone and hurting someone through our giving? Are we assisting or enabling those who come begging at our car windows with cardboard signs?
Here are two very distinct stories of how we as families might show our children ways to give without enabling negative behaviors and habits.
The Gas Station Story
While pumping gas in Fayetteville, N.C., last weekend, on our way home from a visit to Charleston, S.C., a stranger approached my husband, Brian. He came uncomfortably close to our car as Brian held the pump.
I could hear the man saying, “What a beeeeaUTIFUL family ya’ll got in there! ....God loves yer fam-leh, and so do ah,” in a Southern drunken drawl as his eyes wandered to the wallet in Brian’s back pocket.
He started chatting it up with clear intentions of gaining something. The boys watched with wide eyes while the two men stood just outside their car window. Brian played it cool and asked what he could do for the man.
“I juss need me a couple a dollahs to get me a drink a watah,” he said.
Big Lesson: Don’t EVER hand out money to a stranger who is blatantly asking for it.
One, the wallet can possibly disappear from your hand once you pull it out of your pocket. Two, if the poor man needs a drink of water, just get him a drink of water. Don't give him the cash.
And that’s just what Brian did. He walked into the gas station convenience store and bought the man a bottle of “watah.”
As soon as Brian gave him the water, the man twisted it open, took a swig, and asked for money for dinner at Wendy’s, which was just across the street. Brian offered to buy him dinner. The man declined, stating he just needed the cash.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Guess what … he wasn’t planning on using the money for a Frosty. He apparently had other plans. And we weren’t going to be part of them. So on we went.
My older son, Addison, asked why we didn’t just give him money. “I feel so bad for him,” he said. This opened a door to the conversation about why it’s not wise to give money to people in certain situations.
“I see,” Addison pensively replied. “Now I don’t feel as bad.” But it gave him a new perspective on the act of giving.
We stopped a few blocks down the street at a restaurant. As soon as we opened the doors to our car, another man approached us and asked for money for dinner.
Brian responded with sincerity, “We were just about to head into this BBQ place to get some dinner ourselves. Why don’t you join us?” (This is what I love about my husband!) The man quickly declined and went on his way. Guess he wasn’t so hungry after all.
As we found out from the restaurant owner, these men (and a few women) roam the area looking for money to buy drugs but stating they need it for food or drinks. It’s a sad situation.
That’s not always the case though. As parents, we are responsible for defining that fine line between “assisting” someone in need and "enabling" destructive behavior. How does one know?
The Earl Story
When we attended Bethany United Methodist Church, one of the ministries called the “Earl Ministry” offered a meal every day, 365 days a year, to a homeless man who lived under a bridge in the Lehigh Parkway.
Some knew him as “Earl of the Parkway.” He lived under that bridge for 25 years. He’s recently accepted help to move indoors and take care of himself in his old age.
Through our commitment to feeding Earl, the boys were able to learn that helping someone doesn’t mean giving them money. We simply packed a dinner, a drink and some extra snacks every first and third Thursday of each month.
Earl never asked for anything. The church just offered it. The only time Earl asked for something was when we dropped a dinner off and realized he was pretty sick. Brian asked if he needed anything, and to our surprise, he asked if we could get him some cold medicine. The boys saw the value of helping this man by giving him necessities, not money.
Here was a man who had chosen to live under the bridge, but was never a burden to others. He was thankful to those who came each day. We became friends with Earl over the years.
It was a very special experience for the boys to see how privileged they are and how they could help Earl. It demonstrated the hands-on opportunities they have to make a difference. They were sad when Earl moved "inside" and didn't need our meals anymore, but it was a life-changing experience for them.
Some parents might shy away from acts of giving that are so direct. Some people might call us crazy for taking our boys down to the riverside bed of an old homeless man.
But we feel that these hard life-lessons will continue to mold our boys into adults who will continue to give of themselves for the benefit of others. Hopefully it will also make them appreciate what they have.
It’s a matter of teaching our children “how” to give. As parents, we all need to teach the lesson of assisting rather than enabling. Poverty will never disappear. It’s up to us to guide our children to know how to deal with it in a humanitarian and sensible way.
Do you try to involve your children with helping the homeless? In what ways? Tell us in the comments.