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February 16, 2009

Panhandling and parenting


I met my husband when I was 19 and in college, and I knew after our first date that we'd be married.

It creeps Dan out when I tell this story, even today after 15 years of marriage. He thinks it's crazy for a person to instantly know when they've met their match -- and it took Dan a few years to even think about marriage at all. (Just as a side note: I didn't tell him about my first-date premonition until after we were engaged. I'm not THAT creepy.)

My husband and I don't form opinions the same way -- I tend to make decisions quickly, and he tends to be more deliberative. Even so, we're a pretty good match when it comes to our outlooks on relationships, parenting, finances, religion and politics.

Today, though, we began sifting through our differences on panhandling - a topic that intersects all of those lines.

All it all started when Dan was driving the kids around yesterday. There was a homeless man asking for money at a street corner, and Ben, our son, called Dan out for not giving him change. "Why aren't you helping him, Daddy?" were Ben's exact words.

Ouch.

My kids drive around with me more often than Dan, and they see me time and again rolling down the window, gathering up change and handing it over. If I have money with me, I give it. We've idled at many stoplights and talked with many homeless folks as we've learned about their lives. My general impression has been that these panhandlers are struggling with mental illnesses and addictions that fog the clarity they need to find help from traditional places.

I'm not a fool, though. I can see the crushed beer cans near their feet and the bottles peeking out of their backpacks, but I don't see those things as reasons to give or not give. I give money because of two beliefs: the 45 cents in my cup holder has the potential to do good - it actually might go toward bus fare, a phone card or night at a hotel - and in a larger sense, my faith nudges me to give to the "undeserving" because I, too, am a recipient of grace.

Dan is genuinely conflicted about whether giving money like this is the right thing to do. Since he works downtown, he's confronted with panhandling on many more occasions than I am out here in Austin's suburbs. There's a lot of talk within the downtown business community about panhandling, so I know that my husband isn't the only one who wonders about what is right.

For the most part, the kids don't see Dan's charitable giving. They don't see when he puts his spare change each night in the little cardboard box for World Hunger. They also don't meet the pro-bono clients he represents as an attorney in criminal courts, and they don't see the online donations he makes, either.

So it hurts and bothers me that my son would call out his dad for seeming to be uncharitable.

Together as a couple, we're trying to come up with more a consistent way of demonstrating charity and talking about it with our children. Dan's now thinking about signing up with Ben when school's out to volunteer in our congregation's food pantry and clothes closet - a way of putting more action into our family's on-going conversation about how we're to serve others.

It's made me wonder about my own roadside giving - and what messages I send to my children when I give to panhandlers and their father doesn't.

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