Carolyn Hax: How to talk to kids about panhandlers

Carolyn Hax
Columnist March 19

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Any suggestions for explaining to a 7-year-old why I don’t give change to every panhandler who asks for it? I walk her to school through an urban area and have already deflected her questions about this more times than I care to admit.

D.C.

“I think there are better ways to help people than to give them spare change. For example, I give money to groups that help homeless people.” Then do — have her watch you do it.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Even better, encourage her to go through her toys, books and clothing to see if there’s anything she has outgrown and can donate. If you can up that to volunteering at a shelter, even better. Just not as a token on a holiday; that creates more problems for shelters than it does solutions.

If she asks more questions — like the obvious one, “Why?” — you can say that spare change might help solve an immediate problem, like an empty stomach, but that a good charity will help solve problems longer-term.

Re: Panhandlers:

When I lived in New York, I got to know the regular panhandlers along my route to work. Instead of giving money, I made sandwiches and veggie strips. If I ran into one of them, I’d give it to them. If not, then I had veggies to snack on myself. I made peanut butter sandwiches, since they lasted a couple of days without affecting taste.

I donate to United Way for the systemic help, but it was hard even as an adult to turn away from a plea for help. This way I didn’t give money, but if they were really in need, I was able to feed them a single meal.

Anonymous

Very thoughtful idea, thank you. (Some outreach groups suggest sunflower butter due to allergy concerns.)

Re: Panhandlers:

Since you’re in D.C.: Do you ever pass people selling “Street Sense”? When you buy the paper (have the 7-year-old handle the transaction), you can then explain what “Street Sense” is [a newspaper produced and sold by homeless people] and how the person selling the paper is helping him or herself. In nearly every issue there is a Vendor Profile that you can share with her — about how “Street Sense” has helped the vendor get back in the game.

Anonymous 2

D.C.-specific, but the idea of supporting “get back in the game” programs is widely applicable, thanks.

Dear Carolyn:

There’s a woman who lives in my apartment building who is not just morbidly obese (because who isn’t nowadays), but so obese that one almost can’t help but at least glance at her when she’s nearby. The other day, she caught my eye when I looked in her direction — I honestly didn’t mean to stare, I just saw her peripherally and looked over — and the next morning I had a note from her in my mailbox accusing me of cruelty and being insensitive toward her incredible struggle as an overweight person.

Were I to write a letter back (I’m undecided, but considering it), what do you think it should say?

For the Record, I’m Chubby, Too

“Would you like to come over for coffee?” It sounds as if she could use a friend.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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