‘What’s that man doing?’ Lily asked me one day before Christmas, as we walked along a street in Almeria. We had walked past the friendly, grandfatherly-looking beggar who sits on a street corner not far from where I work.
‘He’s begging for money’, I told her.
‘Because he has no other way to get money’
‘Why doesn’t he get money out of the bank?’
‘He doesn’t have any money in the bank’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because if he did have money in the bank he wouldn’t be sitting on the street corner in those torn old clothes begging for money’
‘Why doesn’t he ask his family for money?’
‘Maybe he doesn’t have any family. Or maybe his family can’t help him. Or don’t want to help him’
She’d exhausted this line of questioning so struck from another angle.
‘Why does he want money anyway?’
‘To buy food I suspect’
‘Why doesn’t he just get food from the shops?’
‘Well Lily, you coming shopping with me and Daddy, don’t you?’
‘And the last thing we do before we leave the shop is pay for the food with money’
‘But maybe if he asked them they might give him some food’
‘Shops don’t work that way’
‘Why doesn’t he pick nuts off the trees?’
‘Lily, look around. Do you see any nuts on the trees here? They’re all palm trees’.
‘Well then why doesn’t he go to the beach and pick clams or mussels? Or get sea beet? Or blackberries?’
‘First of all, not everyone has learned how to forage for food like you and Katie have. And second, there’s very little to forage around here. We’re living in a coastal desert. It’s not like Devon or Brittany or Galicia where people can just pick food when they want. Not much grows here’ (I neglect to mention the billions of euros worth of fruits and vegetables grown in poly-tunnels all along this coast by large agro-industrial multinationals. Matters are complicated enough)
‘He could go to where there’s wild food’
‘On the bus’
‘Ah, so now we’re back to the original problem. He’d need money for the bus’
‘He could walk’
‘It’s a long way. His shoes don’t look sturdy enough for a long walk. He needs money to buy new shoes. And besides, he’d need food to give him energy to walk all that way. Remember what we learned about food and energy in your human body book?’
Now she finds a new solution.
‘He could get a job’
‘It’s not easy to get a job’
‘You have a job’
‘Yes, that’s true. But for some people finding a job isn’t so easy’
‘Well, he might have had a job once. Maybe he lost his job because the company couldn’t pay him anymore. Or maybe he lost his job because he became ill, or something bad happened to him. I don’t know’
‘Maybe he got fired because he was late for work’ (Perhaps I shouldn’t tell the girls I’ll get fired if I’m late for work!)
‘Well Lily, people lose their jobs for all sorts of reasons. And then maybe when he lost his job he couldn’t afford to keep his house any more. And maybe no-one else wanted to give him a job. Bad things like this can happen to people for all sorts of reasons. And besides’ I conclude, ‘He’s an old man. He shouldn’t have to work any more’
Lily absorbs all of this information. I think she’s confused by the man and probably a little frightened by his circumstances. He looks about Granddad’s age – he probably is someone’s granddad. He affects her in a way that other homeless men don’t, because his grandfatherliness is familiar to her.
In the February/March 2015 edition of The Green Parent magazine, Louise Kinnaird writes about nurturing empathy and compassion in children. Children as young as 14 months are able to offer help to others and by six or seven years old they can take another’s perspective. She writes, however, that it may take until late adolescence ‘for a child to begin to empathise on societal issues that they cannot relate to, such as homelessness or discrimination’ (p. 31).
I believe that, as parents, it is our duty to encourage and nurture empathy and compassion from the start of our children’s lives. We need to encourage kindness, helpfulness and sharing and, over time, our children will learn to put themselves in the shoes of others. We also need to have conversations with our children that encourage them to consider the feelings of others.
I don’t think Lily empathised with the man. She wanted to solve his problems. She was searching for solutions – probably to find a way to make him more like us. I wanted to introduce her to some of the underlying reasons why this man – and the many other homeless men and beggars we encounter – was begging in the street. I don’t know his story, but I wanted to offer Lily some possibilities, so she could begin to understand the challenges he faces and could begin to see past the unshaven, dishevelled old man on the side of the street, and see his humanity, his dignity and his fierce will to survive.
Another day I might have brushed off her initial probing questions. I might have been in a rush to get somewhere, I might have had something else on my mind. And if I had brushed her off, Lily would have lost an opportunity to look a little deeper into the world, and I would have lost an opportunity to know my daughter’s logic and rationality and concerns. But on this particular day I had the patience and the time to listen to Lily and to have a serious conversation. I don’t expect her to understand the root causes of poverty or homelessness (I certainly don’t). But I hope that by allowing conversations like these to take place, both of us can deepen our empathy and compassion for others.