Kids and the Harsher Realities of Life

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ApplesDear Hypocrite,

The other day I’m walking down Seventh Avenue with my three-year-old son and I notice there’s a panhandler in front of the Citibank.  My son stops to talk to everyone so, although it’s completely out of our way, I cross the street to avoid the woman sitting on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign.  I don’t want to get in a discussion with him about how some people don’t have places to live or enough food to eat.  I know we’ll have to go there eventually, but I want to put it off for as long as possible.

My question is this:  When and what do you tell your kid about the harsher realities of life?  Our bird Lucky died last week.  I told my son that Lucky went to visit her sister in Brazil.  I’m thinking you’re going to tell me it’s wrong to lie but, I thought he’d really lose it if I told him the truth.

Tracey in Gowanus

Dear Tracey,

I’m sorry to hear about your bird.  It’s hard to lose a pet, but you’re right, I’m a big fan of talking about death with kids at an early age, so in my opinion you blew an opportunity.  You think your son might have “lost it”, but he might not have.  He might have pondered Lucky’s death for a few seconds and then asked to play Fruit Ninja.  There will be countless other opportunities to let him in on life’s little inevitability, of course.  Why not go out and buy a goldfish this afternoon?  In a matter of months you’ll have another chance to have that conversation you just dodged.

I don’t know if you read the last issue of Park Slope Reader, but I moved out of the city.  One of the things I miss most about living in Brooklyn is being around all different types of people behaving in all different ways.  Walking home from the store, my kids and I would see someone or something that would initiate a discussion about why people do the things they do or live the way they live.  Here in the suburbs, we still have occasional conversations around social issues, but they are spawned from news heard on the radio or seen on TV.  While I don’t miss stepping over the dog/human shit on my block, I do miss the intensity and diversity of life that a dense population brings.  And yes, I miss the takeout, too.

So to answer your questions:  When do you tell your kid about the dark side?  My answer is when they ask.  And what do you tell them?  It depends.  I completely get that for a three-year-old the idea of someone being hungry or homeless is very scary.  But kids are capable of understanding that bad things happen: Sometimes it rains the whole weekend, sometimes you don’t get the donut you want, sometimes your toy breaks the day you got it.  The key to addressing the heavy issues is to keep it simple.  With my kids, I give a short introduction (topics recently covered:  Why people do drugs, sexual abuse, the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant) and then let them ask questions.  My son will ask questions rapid fire until he’s satisfied.  My daughter will ask a few and then, in a day or two, a few more.   When all are answered, ask a few of your own.  In the case of the woman with the sign, ask your son how he thinks she ended up on the street.  Help him create the story.  It doesn’t have to be realistic—there can be dinosaurs and aliens involved.  Then ask him how you both could help the person.  You certainly could write a check to New York City Food Bank.  Your son can put on the stamp and draw a picture and sign his name.  It’s really important to teach our kids empathy and compassion.  Get started on this as early as you can.  I’m telling you, go buy that fish.

When he gets older, you can bring up the real factors that cause someone to have to ask for money on the street.  You can discuss the lack of affordable housing, mental illness, unemployment, or healthcare costs.  What fun!  And then if your kid is so inclined, enable him to act.  The two of you can volunteer at a shelter, serve food at CHiPs, or collect coats when the weather turns.  These activities are the antidote to self-absorption for both kids and adults.

I have a friend named Ben who has a kid and lives in Park Slope.  He told me this story recently and I asked him to write it up so I could share it with you.

I was on the F train with my kid.  She’s eight, and we were on our way to Bryant Park to go iceskating.  My kid looked adorable.  She was wearing a matching glove and hat set with stripes, and she had the skates she got for Christmas slung over her shoulder.  It was early in the morning and she was snuggled up against me.  All was good.

And then: “Excuse me Ladies and Gentlemen, pardon for the interruption.  I am homeless—”  Now, I work in the city so I hear this every day and my kid is a city kid and she’s no doubt heard it dozens of times herself.  When she was little I’d dig for a couple quarters and let her put them in the cup.  Since she’s older and we’ve had some discussions about how it’s better to give to organizations than to individuals, this particular day we both gazed downward and waited for the person to pass.  But as he passed, we saw that he had no shoes. His feet were in plastic bags with rubber bands to keep them on.  My daughter’s eyes went from the bags to me and then back to the bags.  She then tugged on my sleeve.  “Daddy,” she said,  “give him your wallet.”

I did not hand over my wallet.  My daughter begged me but I kept my eyes down and told her quietly that after ice skating we would make a donation to New York Cares or somewhere that helps the homeless.  But at that moment, it was not enough for my daughter.  She insisted that we get off the train and go home.  It was unfair that she had three pairs of sneakers, one pair of boots, a pair of dress shoes, and a pair of ice skates while that man had none.  We were going home and collecting all the shoes we didn’t need and donating them to a place that would help people like the man on the train.

I am a pretty strict parent.  My girls have to practice the piano for a half hour everyday.  They have chores and must write thank you notes.  But I felt at that moment forcing my daughter to go iceskating was something I just couldn’t stomach.  She was upset and knew what she could do to make herself feel better, and I thought that if I manipulated her into going skating she might learn to stifle her impulses.  I might sound like I had it all figured out, but believe me, this moment was agonizing.  The shoeless man was long gone, but my daughter was still hysterical and I was completely flummoxed.  At the next stop, I followed her off the train and we boarded the Brooklyn-bound one that had just pulled up.

At home, we went through every closet and came up with six pairs to donate.  Then we went to our neighbors and friends that lived close by.  We gathered forty-two pairs of shoes that day and dropped them off at Housing Works.  We took the children’s shoes to the Red Hook Community Center.

That was a couple of weeks ago.  Since then, we’ve talked about volunteering to help others in different ways.  I’m not sure what we’ll do next, but that man on the train definitely moved us act instead of just think.  I’m so thankful I didn’t get in my daughter’s way that morning.  She taught me a lot.

Tracey in Gowanus, get ready.  The great, wild world of parenting an older kid awaits you.  Just remember, you’re not the only one that will be doing the teaching.  Stay open to what your kid feels strongly about, and like Ben, you’ll be a better parent and person for it.

Wash your hands.  Mind your manners.  See you next time.

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