In August 2013, the Federal Appeals Court overturned a longstanding Michigan law that banned panhandling. Since then, beggars have cropped up all over our state, and at many major Grand Rapids area intersections.

“Mom, why doesn’t that man have any food?”

My 7 year old daughter wondered this as we drove past a man with a cardboard sign asking for food or money on the corner of 44th and Byron Center. I am guessing most of you have been in similar situations, as panhandlers seem to be everywhere these days (28th Street at the Target plaza, Beltline and 28th St, Fuller and Michigan, Wealthy at 131 exits).

How do I answer my daughter’s seemingly simple question? (A question which is in fact oh-so-complicated.)

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Turning the Question Back on Your Child

I chose to use what I call the “Santa Approach.” (When my son asked, “Mom, how does Santa get to everyone’s house in just one night?” I replied, “I don’t know honey, how do you think he does it?”)

That day I told my daughter, “I don’t know sweetie, why do you think that man doesn’t have any food?”

There are several reasons why I feel the “Santa Approach” is a good one. First of all, it encourages children to think for themselves. By responding with a quick, “because he doesn’t want to get a job,” or, “he’s just lazy,” or, “he’s probably an alcoholic,” we unintentionally teach our children to make snap judgments. To a certain extent, making snap judgments is human nature. But I prefer to shelter my kids from that reality for as long as I can.

Second of all, I really don’t know why that man doesn’t have any food. I could make all kinds of educated (or uneducated) guesses as to why he is in the predicament he is in, but the truth is, I have no idea. Everyone has a story, and I don’t know his.

On this point, I think of my brother-in-law who has struggled with mental health and addiction issues throughout most of his life. He has been homeless, he has begged for money, and he has eaten out of dumpsters. But he also happens to be an incredibly kind, intelligent, and talented individual. I am quite certain he has never set out to be homeless, bipolar, or an addict. And he is incredibly grateful for all of the help he has gotten over the years.

And the final reason I like this approach is because it buys you a little bit of time to construct a thoughtful super-parent answer. Buying yourself a little bit of time is just part of parenting survival!

How We Helped the Panhandler

My kids came up with lots of possible reasons that day for why the panhandler might need food, such as the grocery stores all closed early, he spent all of his money on toys, or his car broke down. (These are all possibilities, as we don’t know his story).

My next question to them was, “What do you think we should do?” My daughter’s first idea was to invite him to stay with us (“We have a guest room, mom!”). We compromised with buying him a meal from McDonald’s, and we all felt pretty good about that.

We then had some great conversation about how fortunate we are to have the things that we have. Can you imagine feeling hungry all the time? Can you imagine not having a place to sleep at night? What else do you think we could do to help people? It’s amazing to hear the ideas that come from young brains.

Why People are Hesitant to Help Beggars

Some of the concerns/arguments people have with giving to panhandlers:

  • What if he/ she doesn’t actually need the help?
  • What if he/ she uses the money for drugs or alcohol?
  • Why doesn’t he/ she just go get a job?
  • Why should I spend my hard earned money helping this person out?

When You Should Help the Beggar on 44th and Byron Center

All of those concerns are very valid. What it comes down to, in my opinion, is YOU doing what feels right for YOU. There is so much that goes into our beliefs and our decisions about how we handle these types of situations. The way we were raised, our religious influence, and our political stance are just a few.

I was raised by givers. My mom and dad, both retired schoolteachers, have always been incredibly generous to others. They are the people who anonymously make donations to countless charities and causes. They are the people who pay for the car repairs of a single mom who is crying in the waiting room at the dealership because she doesn’t have enough money to pay her repair bill. They are the people that volunteer at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t want recognition, they don’t pass judgment, they just do it. And that is the message that was passed on to me as a child. So it makes sense that that is the message that I have now passed on to my own kids.

A close friend of mine recently brought up the topic of why we do nice things for others. After a rather lengthy discussion, we both came to the conclusion that we do kind things for others both for the benefit of other people, but also for our own. We do nice things for others because it makes us feel good. For me, that seems like a win-win. So, if it feels good to give something to a panhandler, you should do it. If that doesn’t feel good to you, then don’t.

Whatever you do, just remember that you are the top role model for your kids when it comes to learning how to treat others and deciding how to view the world.

Ways You and Your Kids Can Help Those In Need in Our Community

  • Make up packages with a bottle of water, a granola bar, and numbers for local agencies that can help. Keep them in your car and pass them out when you see someone in need.
  • Volunteer at a local shelter. Check out Places You Can Volunteer With Your Kids in Grand Rapids.
  • Make sandwiches to pass out in an area where there are several homeless individuals.
  • Collect blankets and pillows to pass out to people in need.

How have you gotten your kids involved in helping others?