His sign read simply, “I’m homeless–need help.” It was scribbled on a rumpled piece of cardboard with black marker. Growing up in Los Angeles, my children will see many curious things, just as I did. But that day, as I drove on Hollywood Boulevard with my son, I found myself entirely unprepared for how one otherwise ordinary interaction would impact me.
My son asked me to help him decipher the words on the sign. I strive for honesty, so I read them to him without edits. “What does that mean Mommy?” he asked.
I hesitated. After a considerable pause I replied cautiously, “It means that he doesn’t have anywhere to live and he is looking for something or someone to help him out.” I waited for the barrage of questions that often followed, but it never came. “Oh,” my son replied, and left it at that. Somehow my answer was sufficient to satisfy his inquisition, but I wondered if and when more questions would follow, and I felt anxious about how I would field them.
I had a knot in my stomach and I immediately questioned my choice to ignore the man as we waited at the stoplight. It was a tense couple of minutes at the red light while I tried to avoid eye contact with him as he stood there, mostly emotionless, holding up his sign. The light changed to green and as I drove on, I immediately considered going around the block, back to where the man stood. I want my son to know that his family values the practice of tzedakah (charity)–we aim to help those in need. This could have been an effective teachable moment, and I blew it.
I feared my son would wonder why I didn’t do anything after I had just explained that this man needed help. Does my son have enough empathy at this age to grapple with this? And why didn’t I just help the man out by giving him a few bucks? I can come up with credible excuses: It is true that I rarely carry cash with me, and on this particular day I had just rummaged around in my purse to find the six dollars necessary for the drive-through car wash as a treat for my son during our special time together. I already felt guilty enough for such a frivolous activity during a terrible drought, and now I was reminded how people suffer everyday out on the streets of LA and beyond. This harsh realization, while I was about to beautify my car, made me feel particularly soulless and bourgeois. I felt dirty in a way no car wash could wash away.
Some time has passed since that afternoon, and so far my son hasn’t brought it up again. But I can’t stop thinking about how I didn’t model compassion that day. How can I raise him to be a mensch when it is a struggle for me too? I have the means, yet I chose not to help that man. I may have wanted to shelter my son from the dark reality of life or to delay the inevitable demise of his innocence by avoiding an interaction with that man, but in so doing I failed to show him what tzedakah, or fighting injustice and inequity, truly looks like.
We are all struggling to do better. Maybe the key is to allow our children to witness the struggle. To let them in on it so they can come to understand that we all aspire to be the best version of ourselves, but sometimes we fail, and that’s OK as long as we continue to try.
My son enjoys putting loose change in his little hand-painted tzedakah box. One of these days I hope to show him what he can do with that money, and how it might help someone in need. Maybe that means we circle the block and roll down the window next time.