“How do you tell someone that they shouldn’t bring a lot of toys to school… but, nicely?”
On the way home from daycare my daughter asked me this question, and by the way she told me the story, I could tell that she was really asking, “Did I do this right?”
I had to laugh at my crafty daughter. She was working at justifying something that she did that probably made a peer feel badly. She may have well asked, “Why didn’t he take my criticism better?” In fact, as we began to talk about it, Scarlet even suggested a very soothing tone, and modeled for me the way a kid might tell another kid that they shouldn’t do something, and it be respectable. She sounded like an adult explaining something painful to a child.
My initial reaction was, “No”.
“Daddy, how do I tell someone that he is doing something wrong?”
“No. You don’t.” I didn’t realize that she already had. When this concept dawned my cognition, I began to walk Scarlet back. She had explained that a friend who she sat next to on the bus had opened his backpack to show Scarlet all of the toys that he was bringing to school. It seems like this is when my daughter tried as much as she could to classily tell him that he was ridiculous for doing exactly what she would have done if her mommy and daddy let her.
As Scarlet provided more and more details, I could tell that she was actually envious of her friend. The word “fair” surfaces every five sentences, these days. This was definitely one of those times. I explained to Scarlet that it wasn’t her place to tell her friends what to do, how to do it, or not to do certain things. “If someone breaks the rules, you can remind him or her of the rules, and you can let an adult know. But, if someone does something that bothers you, it is your job to deal with it. Let’s say someone says something mean to you. You should tell the person that those words hurt your feelings, and you didn’t appreciate it…”
Scarlet is an only child. She has a bit of a bossy streak in her. When I told her to tell someone something, she was all about that! We discussed how to do this classily. Then she prompted, “And, you tell the teacher!”
I told her that classy kids don’t bother the teacher with every little thing that bothers them. “If someone hurts your feelings, you address this. Perhaps the person apologizes and you remain playing partners and friends. It is possible, though, that the person does not behave politely. And then you just stay away from that individual. You only go talk to the teacher if someone is breaking the rules.”
This bit of news–Rules News–was eye-widening. Someone has experienced this before! Scarlet gave me all kinds of examples of this happening at school. I explained that the rules are set up to help students be safe and not hurt others. Scarlet mentioned punishments for kids who break the rules. I didn’t want her to focus on that. “What happens to students who break the rules is up to the teacher to decide. That is none of your business. And, don’t tell on someone, so that he or she gets into trouble. Your job in communicating rule-breaking is to help your friends and yourself be as safe as possible. Don’t worry about punishments.”
“When grownups break rules, they go to prison,” Scarlet offered.
“Sometimes they do. There are a few different kinds of punishments for adults who break the law. Rules for adults are called laws,” I explained.
“What are grownup rules?”
When I began thinking about what laws my 7-year old would understand, my mind went to the classroom. I told her that just like kids, adults shouldn’t take other people’s things. I explained that if someone took daddy’s truck, we would have a difficult time getting around. Now, if someone asked to borrow it, that would be different. Then I would know where it is, or at least who had it. I told her that taking someone else’s things without asking is called stealing. Before letting Scarlet go to school and accuse anyone and everyone of this crime, I explained that sometimes a neighbor will borrow something, like a pencil or crayon without asking. If they need one, and you aren’t using yours, someone could choose to use yours for a minute. This is not “stealing”. As long as it does not hurt anything, that is permissible, and you should classily allow friends to use your things. If they didn’t return it, or if he/she broke it and didn’t replace it, there would be a problem. That is not nice. “Then I tell the person, ‘You did something not nice’,” Scarlet practiced.
I smiled. “Do you have to tell the teacher about that?” I inquired.
“You don’t have to, but you can,” Scarlet regurgitated.
I also told Scarlet that another law for adults to live by is not hurting others, physically. “When adults have disagreements, they use words to sort things out,” I told her. “They do not attack someone with their hands or feet and hurt the person’s body.” I wasn’t sure Scarlet knew the word “physical”, yet. I’m not sure that this idea was communicated clearly enough, but the seed was planted. Those two laws seemed like good ones to begin with. We didn’t need to get into driving, taxes, or copyright infringement just yet.
Going back to the backpack full of toys that Scarlet’s neighbor on the bus had shown her, I wanted to communicate to my daughter that sometimes we need to simply deal with our own feelings. “Just because you think that boy shouldn’t bring all of those toys to school, doesn’t mean that you should tell him. You’re not his mommy. You’re not his teacher.”
When I asked her how she would feel if someone told her what to do, Scarlet said, “You’re not the boss of me.” I laughed.
If a parent or person in authority has said, “No” to a request for something, to ask for it again is disrespectful. It communicates disbelief, disregard, and hubris; not very classy character traits.
I heard a report of Scarlet’s behavior when Mommy was visiting someone the other day that lead to a lesson on what it means to be classy. Scarlet approached one of my wife’s adult friends and asked if she could have something. Being an only child, Scarlet has no shortage of toys. We buy her what she wants, as well as purchase things she hasn’t even dreamed of wanting. So, for Scarlet to ask someone outside of the immediate family for something was unnecessary, awkward, and therefore inappropriate.
I like the idea of Scarlet feeling comfortable speaking with adults. And, I even like that she feels confident requesting things, but soliciting other people’s property is just wrong. “If Daddy were hungry,” I explained to her, “And he saw someone eating a sandwich, would it be okay to go up to the person and ask for it? Of course not!” That would be weird. Additionally, it puts the person being requisitioned in an awkward position. If she says “No” she won’t look very polite, and if she says “Yes”, but doesn’t want to give up the item, she could feel bitterness toward you.
One of Scarlet’s new sayings is, “That’s not fair.” Erika Watts, of Dorky Mom Doodles, shared a handful of New Year’s Resolutions, recently. One that cracked me up used a metaphor of Sauron’s all-seeing eye from “Lord of the Rings” to explain that she normally could not touch a candy bar without her kids knowing it. The Dorky Mom writes that this year she resolves to eat a candy bar by herself. Good luck, Erika! Is it fair that Mom should eat an entire candy bar without sharing? Guess what, honey. Asking mommy to share the candy bar isn’t fair to mommy.
This lesson was more than a one time, fifteen minute car ride discussion. One afternoon, Scarlet asked if it was classy to beg. This threw me for a loop. I hadn’t used the word “beg” when discussing with my daughter the inappropriateness of asking others for things. I remembered my own childhood, a million years ago, when we would say, “You beggin’!” to our friends when we didn’t want to share something that they were requesting.
I always try to answer my daughter’s questions as truthfully as possible. Also, I want to prepare her for life, by educating her on potential scenarios that the world might throw at her. If a kid told Scarlet that she was a “beggar”, what would she think that meant? What should she think of beggars? Is begging classy?
These are tricky questions to answer. Begging has negative connotations, but is begging wrong or bad? In my class and this blog I use the word “classy” because it is funny, cheesy, and denotes having manners. I do not use it to promote classism. It seems to me that a poor artist can be much classier than a wealthy person who treated others badly to attain riches. Additionally, homeless people and panhandlers do not all come from the same stock. Some people, John Bird among them, dismiss beggars as drug addicts, people with drinking problems, or mental health sufferers (Branigan, 2002). Bird was homeless for a time, and began the magazine “Big Issue” to help homeless people, but his life is only one annotation on the issue. His callous dismissal of these people isn’t helpful.
A book that provided a paradigm shift for me is “Far From the Tree” by Andrew Solomon (2013). This book presents several types of people that society marginalizes and controversies surrounding their situations. Deaf, dwarf, prodigy, parents of criminals, and children of rape victims are just a few of the categories that Solomon writes about. And, each one was explored and explained far beyond my prior knowledge. The one that was the most foreign to me, and therefore presented the most new information, was the chapter on schizophrenia. Movies make light of multiple personalities, but Solomon made it real. His book contains thorough stories and lengthy interviews with people who live with the condition. Solomon’s mission is to help regular people feel and understand what it would be like to live life through the lense of someone who has to deal with these maladies on a daily basis. It is easy to dismiss homelessness as a byproduct of mental health deficiency, but “Far From the Tree” (Solomon, 2013) spells out the difficulties in helping people with schizophrenia. Neither medicine nor counseling help people who hear voices in their head, completely. There aren’t enough funds for these people to be housed by expert facilities. It was through reading this text that my view of homeless people completely changed. I no longer saw their situation as a choice. In some cases, begging or asking for help IS the classiest thing for a person to do. Alternatives include self-medicating, wasting away, and completely losing one’s mind. Just writing this makes me want to give to panhandlers.
Before getting carried away, Ole Moen makes a compelling point in “Don’t Give Money to Beggars” (2012), published in Practical Ethics by The University of Oxford. After dispelling the typical cases for giving money to panhandlers, Moen presents the argument that when someone gives money to a panhandler, they are taking money from someone who may need it more. He argues that panhandlers in America are not as bad off as those in other countries and parts of the world. Moen calculated the typical charity shown to the typical beggar on the corner of a busy intersection as about $50-$70 an hour. Not begrudging these people, but suggesting that this money might be better spent furthering a reputable helper of homeless people in the worst part of the world, Moen suggests people donate to charities that do more good than the tiny feeling of giving a guy a buck. He is not calassed. Moen is calculated. This counter-intuitive idea would be tough to sell to my seven-year-old, but it is one that I can mull over. If Scarlet and I consciously gave some of our funds to a few organizations that help people in need, and if we also checked on these groups to see what our money was doing, I can picture her understanding why we don’t give to beggars on the street. It isn’t that we don’t want to help them. We do.
Kate R. wrote an article for Grand Rapids Kids, “How to Talk to Your Kids About Panhandling and Helping to Those in Need” (2014), after her 7 year old daughter witnessed a man with a “Hungry” cardboard sign on the side of the road. The daughter asked her mommy, “Why doesn’t that man have any food?” Kate R. used what she calls the “Santa Approach” in dealing with this and many other tough questions. She told her daughter, “I don’t know, sweetie. Why do you think the man doesn’t have any food?” This launched a discussion where the mom could correct some misconceptions and educate the daughter on some of the hardships adults face.
Kid Power: Take Charge of Your Safety ran a piece called “Handling Panhandling So Panhandlers Won’t Handle You” by Irene van der Zande (2013). She begins with a story about being 14 in Mexico and having many panhandling children swarm her after giving one of them a dollar. This can be a scary feeling. I remember a time I visited Jamaica. I was walking through an outdoor market. Right after I bought a necklace from a vendor, I noticed I was being followed. It was a lesson on the title “Mark”. I had been marked as someone with money, who was okay with parting with it. I was a target. I love the bit of advice that Van der Zande (2013) begins with: Rather than handing out money or help thoughtlessly, think clearly about your decision and make it a conscious action. When you unthinkingly give time, money, or other resources, you are in danger of being tricked. Also, the author points out that this is simply not safe. The next few bits of advice run along the same line; it is good to have a plan, maintain a safe distance from panhandlers, and don’t get surprised. Be smart. This is a beneficial, short read; I highly recommend it.
It’s interesting writing about begging from both perspectives: How to handle people who are asking you for money and how to get your kid to stop pestering you for stuff. The safety tips from Van der Zande (2013) seem like they could apply to parents protecting themselves from their own panhandling progeny. I can picture Dorky Mom Doodles author, Erika Watts (2019) maintaining a safe distance from her children by locking herself in the bathroom with her candybar;) Probably, we should teach kids that although adults may ask strangers for money, and there are complicated reasons for this, you, learning youth, who have everything that you need, should not practice this.
Amy Morin’s article “7 Ways Parents Can Put an End to a Child’s Pestering” (2012) actually does read like a pamphlet for dealing with panhandlers. As I read about “Never Give In”, the 1st way for ending childhood begging, I remember my experience in Jamaica. If I hadn’t purchased the necklace, I could have feigned poverty, “I have no money.” As far as the vendors would be concerned, I was a poor youth and not worth attention. Once I did show that I had money, however, Morin suggests to “Stay Calm” (no. 2) and “Ignore Ongoing Protests” (no. 3). As I evaluate these tips, I am thinking that a parent could instruct a child (age-permitting) on not begging by teaching how to deal with panhandlers. Morin goes on to suggest to parents that they set firm “If/Then” stipulations that have clear consequences. She ends with the advice of helping kids learn how to deal with disappointment. If parents give in to the begging, we could be training kids to do more of the same.
Finally, Heather Steiger seems to be a no-nonsense mom who preaches against giving an inch in “5 Phrases That Will INSTANTLY Make Your Kids Stop Begging” (2016). These staccato sayings are sure to end all young person’s panhandling practices. The only thing is that they seem to lack nuance. It is like treating every request like an assault on your parenting. “This conversation is over!” may work at getting your kid to discontinue begging, but at what cost? Do you really want to communicate that “One more word out of you on this subject will reap serious consequences”? I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to close the communication door for any reason. I don’t want Scarlet to beg or pester me or anyone else, but it isn’t worth instituting the silent treatment. Steiger’s article begins with her witnessing a child giving a parent a hard time in a grocery store checkout. The mom caved and let the kid get a candy, with the concession that it be eaten after dinner. Steiger saw this as the kid running the relationship. It is tempting to view the checkout line mom’s actions as weak and potentially harmful, reinforcing the annoying activity. While Steiger might be able to get that kid to never beg again, with one of or a combination of her 5 phrases, do we really want our kids to be threatened with loss of love? Check out the article; It’s a very short read; and see if you agree or disagree with me. In my opinion, assuming rigid, black/white answers is rarely classy. It is far more classy to communicate why begging is not classy. Good luck!
I’d love to learn your thoughts on this matter. What do you think? Is begging just part of childhood? How should panhandling be explained to children?
How many teachers have great classroom management, but can’t manage their own offspring? My daughter Scarlet is great. She doesn’t need all that much managing, but there are times when you wouldn’t guess her father is the “Captain of Class”. She can hang with the best of manners-missing marauders. And, I’d be lying if I didn’t mistake her for a bratty buccaneer every now and again. Due to location, Scarlet will never join the ranks of the Polite Pirates in my classroom, but that doesn’t mean she can’t share their class.
At the turn of the year I saw many people posting #OneWord2019 on Twitter. They were inspiring and motivational. It was right around this time that I made a family decision: This was going to be “The Year of Class”! I was going to bring all of my lessons on how to behave classily home from school and share them with my daughter. #OneWord2019 “CLASS” seems pretty generic, coming from someone who already writes and teaches about classy behavior all of the time.
Then it dawned on me: Class is a thing, akin to perfection. I know that my daughter’s behavior will not be perfect; I don’t want it to be flawless. I’m okay with Scarlet making mistakes. What I want to teach her is how to make them classily.
There it is! That’s the word!
Classy is full of criteria: Does it meet certain standards? Is it good enough? Through my many musings on the subject of what it means to be classy over the years I’ve come across more than one paradox. For instance, a classy person is a “man of action”… But, someone who appears to “try to hard” does not look very classy. And, the less one works, but things are happening all around him, the classier. Which is it, hard work, little work, hidden work, delegated work…? Now that I am going to be teaching my daughter, I want to be sure. I will be her teacher through more than one grade.
More than the amount of work, what type of work, or whether you work at all, the most important thing is how you conduct your work. One student writes a two-page narrative, while another punches out a paragraph. The first always writes a lot. The kid didn’t use any new skills that had been recently taught. The second student struggles to string four words together, typically. Perhaps he usually complains of not having anything to say. But this time, his attention during your descriptive writing lesson is paying off. And, the pep talk about taking pride in your work has sunk in. You can’t believe your eyes. A paragraph has blossomed on a paper without one prompting. What is a better measure of success, growth or achievement? Rather than grading the work on whether the final product was classy or not, why not grade the process on how classily it was performed?
Here is another paradox. I make a big deal about how my students sit in class and stand in line. Posture is important to me. “Put your shoulders back and raise your chins, because you are proud,” I tell them. Am I instructing them to be proud of themselves, or do they think that they are better than other classes? Am I teaching my students to raise their chins or look down their noses? The answer is don’t make it a competition. You don’t have to be better than other people to think highly of yourself. If others are better than you at things, should you think lowly of yourself? Stand classily, regardless of your “standing” in the world. You are you; be proud. Be proud of being right there and standing nicely, if need be.
My daughter was excited when I told her that this was going to be “The Year of Class”. I explained that I would be sharing a little of what this means each day. There have been days that Scarlet reminded me about my classy lessons. She has asked me specific questions like, “Is that classy?” These always spark fun conversations. She is taking her new task seriously…
It is apropos that I write this theme on a day when we celebrate a man who was more than a symbol of class; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an icon of moving mountains classily. His lifelong philosophy of nonviolent protest was grounded in self-pride and showed the hard work of refusing to work. There are many reasons to honor Dr. King. In my book, he was the KING OF CLASS.