The lessons you don't want to have to teach your kids

7 years ago

We were Chicago this past weekend.

For about ten years, this was our stomping ground.  We went to college there, Brian and I met there, we had our first apartment, bought our first condo, walked the streets, knew the restaurants, recognized the faces, navigated the CTA.

The was our place. 

This time, we went back with the kids.  And while we haven't lived there in more than eight years, it was alternately shocking how much was the exact same and how much was different.

Buildings had come and gone.  Restaurants had opened and closed.  A 50+ story building now stands in the once empty lot across from our old building on Lake Shore Drive.

But one thing hadn't changed.  The faces of many of the homeless.  Yes, there were new faces.  But even eight years later, it was unbelievable how many of the same people were out on the same corners.  Selling the same Streetwise.  Asking for money.  Inquiring if we had the same change to have enough for bus fare.

The weekend also opened my eyes to the fact that, living where we do, our kids don't see this reality very often.  They don't walk down the street and find themselves walking next to people laying on the ground. 

That is not to say they don't know about homelessness and hunger.  We have actually talked quite a bit about those issues and tried to help them understand what is such a non-understandable problem.

But this weekend, Caleb, in particular, was overwhelmed by it all.  And it is overwhelming.  You really can't walk more than a block down one of the major streets without encountering someone asking for money.

I don't think it was really the volume of need that was impressed upon him.  What seemed to hit him hard was watching how we responded.

Engage.  Disengage.  Show compassion.  Pull away.  Engage.  Disengage.

Early in the day, Brian and the boys walked by one man who was playing buckets and drums. 

Both boys were wearing music-themed shirts and the drummer invited them to play his drums and buckets.

Afterwards, Brian gave him a few dollars and they all wished each other well.

After that, Caleb was confused.  Why did they talk to him and not to the others?

Why didn't we stop and give every single person a dollar?

Why did we sometimes just look straight ahead and keep walking when we were approached?

Why did we grab their hands a little tighter when someone shouted after the kids?

At one point, Caleb, who had found four pennies on the ground walked up to one of the men to give them to him.  The man angrily brushed him off.

I understood that.  It seemed rude, perhaps, to have this well dressed kid come up and try to give him four cents.

But from Caleb it was genuine.  He was giving all he had.  Literally every penny he had on himself he wanted to give away.  And he wasn't just trying to give money.  He was trying to give some kindness

We later explained to the boys that what is so hard is that homelessness is such a huge problem.  It's one that we can't help by giving every person a dollar, even if we had it to give.  It's one that four pennies can't help.  And it's one that is complicated.  Money alone can't fix it.

Because for every person who has had a horrible lot in life and finds themselves in that situation, there is one who, perhaps, ended up there for other reasons.  That while there are people who would value that dollar and use it for food or a train ride home, there are others who will say they are $1 short for the train and will use to to buy cigarettes.

These are hideous lessons to have to teach your kids.  On so many levels.  To have to teach them about homelessness.  About honesty.  About deceit.  About addiction.  About abuse.  About poverty.  About bias.  About safety.

Perhaps the best lesson from all of this, though, was the one I learned from Caleb.  A dollar can't fix it.  Pennies can't fix it.  But perhaps genuine compassion and kindness can help.

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