“What’s wrong with that man? What does his sign say?” I hear this at least twice a day from my 3 year old. “Panhandling” has become such a reality in our day-to-day that we see at least 15-20 people in need between our home and my daughter’s school. My response is usually “that person is hungry and they don’t have any food or money. Maybe we can say a prayer for them?” What else can I say? I wish I had enough money to give each person $5 when we drive by, but then I’d be spending $200/day and that’s just not a reality for this middle-class Mama. Sometimes, if we have extra crackers or a bottle of water, and the light won’t turn green for a while, I’ll hold it out the window for them. After all, I am committed to trying to teach social justice to my children. I want to be a good example to my daughter and my son (who isn’t old enough to ask questions yet, but he’s perceptive enough to know he has them.)
Setting a Good Example
What does setting a good example even mean? Best case scenario, someone was hungry, and I fed them. I gave them charity, and they will have eaten for a moment. Charity is good and it has its place in our society, and even in our Faith culture (#Catholic.) But does charity really help in the long run? The answer is ‘no’. While this sounds harsh, it really is not. The result of charity is meant to be short-term. It’s the whole “give a man a fish, he eats for a day” idea. Long-term, effective solutions are always rooted in justice, and I don’t mean the Batman kind of justice (although that would be cool.) Catholic Social Teaching has 4 pillars, and one of those pillars is social justice. That means doing whatever necessary to ensure the safety and dignity of the fellow man - LONG TERM.
Our parish priest gives this example: Say you were walking through the woods and came upon a stream. In this stream were floating dozens and dozens of babies. Charity would demand that you remove the babies from the river, clothe them, feed them, and give them shelter. Justice, on the other hand, demands that we march up river and find out WHY these babies are being thrown into the river, and then DO something about it! If not you, then who? If not now, then when? Social justice is neither comfy nor amicable, but it’s always necessary. It’s not the hero we need, it’s the hero we deserve. No, wait. That’s Batman.
How to Teach Social Justice
In our home, we encourage our children to make their bed, help put away dishes, load the toilet paper in the bathrooms, and help fold towels. By taking an active part in our home-community and having shared responsibilities, compassion is being learned. By feeding the dogs and cat and our four fish, they are learning to care for their fellow man. By learning to dress themselves, brush teeth, brush hair, etc., they are learning self-care. These are all traits that can be passed to other human beings, and by doing this - by raising our children to take CARE - we are teaching them to promote social justice in their world, and in our community.
So, for now, I’ll hand out crackers and the occasional juice box or bottled water from the car window, say a prayer for the person holding the sign, and hope the best for that person for that day. But at our home, we are in training to help our fellow man, and to discover the root of any problems we may face so that we can solve them the best way we know how. We are starting in the home, the basis of all human education. We are rooting our understanding of how to teach social justice in our family unit, and if we know anything about roots, it’s that they expand and invade.
Teaching Charity to Children
Children are naturally generous, once they pass the “MINE!” stage. Sharing everything from cookies in their lunchboxes to socks at recess is normal and fulfilling for them. This time in a child’s life is the perfect time to teach them to be charitable to those to whom less is given. Going through toys and deciding which ones to donate to Goodwill is a monthly occurrence in our home, as is the mourning over the toys she forgot she had, but suddenly decided were her favorite. Before each of these rituals, though, we sit down and take stock of everything that we have. We show our gratitude for our home, for our food, and for the nice things we have to play with. We call to mind the children in our very own community that don’t have any toys at all, and then we decide together which of these wonderful toys we are going to donate so that someone who has no toys at all can have something nice to play with.
It is that simple, really. Be intentional about creating a charitable mindset in your children. Help your children take stock of what they have. Help them to know that three square meals a day is a rarity in this world. Help them to understand that having more than one toy is a privilege, and that to whom much is given, much is expected. Their already-generous hearts want to help even those whom their eyes cannot see. If this becomes a habit in their childhood, oh, what a world it could be.
For more on how to involve your children with charity, check out Tips on Holiday Gifting to the Less Fortunate and How to Include Your Kids.