Blog: An uncomfortable conversation about compassion & con-artists

panhandlerNote: This piece originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune in July of 2013.

As my children grow older, I’m finding that the questions they occasionally throw at me aren’t quite as easy to answer as they once were. They’re also not quite as easy to dismiss.

As parents, there are some topics we’d just rather sidestep until our children are old enough to comprehend them. One of those topics came up the other day when I was driving my kids home from day-camp.

We were stopped at an intersection when my kids spotted a man standing on the street corner and holding up a cardboard sign that explained that he was going through a hard time, and that he needs money. They’ve taken notice of such people before, but for some reason, my son seemed to be particularly fascinated with this man. And he had some questions for me regarding him.

The conversation went something like this:

My son: “Dad… That guy’s holding up a sign because he doesn’t have any money, right?”

Me (after some hesitation): “Well… I don’t know how much money he actually has, but he’s asking people to give him money.”

My son: “If he doesn’t have any money, how did he buy his bike?” (The man had what looked to be a fairly expensive mountain bike leaning up against the lamp-post behind him.)

Me: “Uh… Well… That’s a good question.”

My son: “If he wants money, can’t he just get a job and earn money from working?”

Me: “Well, I don’t really know what his situation is, and I, uh… So how was camp today?”

It was a pretty uncomfortable line of questioning, which I’m sure stemmed from my ongoing efforts to teach my kids the value of a dollar, and how money is earned through hard work.

As that philosophy applies to people like the man on the street corner, there’s obviously more of a gray area to consider. I think we all know that there are a number of people in our society who aren’t nearly as helpless as they present themselves to be. That’s just a fact. But at the same time, I don’t really want to reinforce cynicism in my children. After all, there are also a lot of people out there who truly need help.

Which category did the man on the street-corner fall into? I can guess, but I really don’t know for sure. And I told them that.

After weighing the topic in my mind a bit longer, I did my best to reiterate to my children the concepts of charity and compassion for the poor. I then explained to them what a con-artist is, and that some people in our society CAN work, but choose not to in favor of looking for hand-outs… And that some times, those people use deception to achieve that.

This unsurprisingly opened up a Pandora’s box of additional questions that both of my children peppered me with. By the time we arrived at our house about 20 minutes later, we had talked about donating to charity, different types of fraud, volunteer work, government programs, the entitlement mentality, and lots of other related things that I did my best to frame in a way my children could understand them.

Sure, it was a bit awkward, but I suppose it was a societal lesson that would have eventually come up at some later date anyway. And I think it was productive.

I want my kids to grow up to be compassionate people, who are kind and caring to others. I also want to teach them that the key to success is self-reliance and hard work, and that they shouldn’t feel as if they’re owed something from other people. I don’t believe those traits to be mutually exclusive by any means. In fact, I believe that individuals are most charitable once they’ve become self-sufficient.

So, we’ll see where things go from here. Like many kids, mine don’t really appreciate the things they have or the quality of life they enjoy. A continual challenge for my wife and I will be to help mold them into a mindset where they do appreciate how fortunate we are as a family, and hopefully understand that it took a lot of hard work to get us to where we are today.

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