Questions (part one)

I am trying to navigate along Ohio under the 405, wondering whether to continue along towards Westwood or turn on Sepulveda; the latter is faster but the turn at Olympic can be a bitch.  Lilah is starting to fuss and sounds in danger of falling asleep before we get home, which means her afternoon nap will last for all of eight minutes in the car.  Benjamin hollers “louder!” every time I turn Peter and the Wolf down below 107 decibels.  What I really don’t need right now is a Discussion.

“If that man is homeless, how did he get clothes?” Zachary asks from the back of the minivan.

“Maybe someone gave them to him,” I reply, pulling up to yet another red light.  “You know how when our clothes don’t fit anymore we give them to Goodwill?  Maybe someone gave those clothes to Goodwill.”

“But how did he have the money to buy them, is what I am asking.”

“The people at Goodwill gave them to him.”

“But at Goodwill you have to buy the things,” he insists.

I sigh.  It’s one of those conversations.  Lilah has quieted down and is moving her feet, so she appears to be content listening to her brother.  “I think that they sell some things, but they give other things to the homeless people,” I reply, knowing full well there is more coming.

Zachary thinks for a moment.  “I think he had those clothes before he became homeless.”

“That’s a distinct possibility.”  I turn right at Bristol Farms onto Westwood as Peter is dangling a rope from the tree in his effort to catch the wolf.  We’re quiet for a minute, almost until the light turns green at Santa Monica.

“But, Mommy, how does someone become homeless?”  Crap.  I should have known better than to imagine I was getting off that easy.

How do I make him understand that the world is unfair and people are not on the streets because they are lazy without making him anxious that at any moment we could be out in the streets?  Because, frankly, the kid is anxious enough already.  I stammer through a reply about not having enough money to pay for a house, hitting the left turn signal at Olympic and hoping the conversation is over.

“I am going to have seven jobs,” he tells me.  This I have heard before, as he is convinced he won’t get bored if he has a different job for each day of the week.  Lately, his career goals have centered around paleontology, and he hopes to run a graveyard someday as a way of familiarizing himself with bones.  Yeah, because this particular child ought to be spending his time around dead people.

Now he has a new reason to want multiple jobs.  “Because I don’t want to be homeless.”  Zachary seems to think if he works incessantly he can shore himself up against the vagaries of life and fortune.  Go tell that to all the unemployed I-Bankers

We are home safely, and the conversation pauses for the unstrapping of car seats and the carrying of lunch boxes.  It does not resume, in fact, for several days, until one afternoon when I am taking all three children down the street to the bank.  We pass a homeless man in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette and reading a book smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk outside Boston Market.

Zachary stares.  “He shouldn’t be smoking,” he tells me.  Somehow the cigarette is more noteworthy than the wheelchair or the bags filled with stuff.

We get to the bank, where I cash some checks from other parents so I can assemble the monetary gift we are presenting to the teachers.  Benjamin amuses himself by doing his own version of a pole dance on the barriers that form the teller line, eventually bringing them crashing to the floor.  He then proceeds to grab all of the pamphlets on opening an account, ensuring they cannot be returned to their display by breaking the little plastic holder.

We barely make it out the door without him staging a bank robbery.

On the way home, the smoker is sitting outside Boston Market, reading.  “Why is he still sitting there reading?” Zachary asks loudly.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” I answer.  We walk a few steps further away.  “Well, did you notice all the things on his wheelchair?”


“So, why do you think he has all his stuff with him?”

“Because he’s homeless?” Zach replies.

“That’s right.  So, he doesn’t have a house where he can read.  So he’s reading right here.”  This strikes Zachary as rather sensible, allowing me to avoid a conversation about mental illness, which doesn’t come up for another week.  But, homelessness keeps coming up, in part because there seem to be a hell of a lot more people on the streets these days.  In fact, the only time we do not see homeless people is when we specifically pack a lunch to give to someone, and then suddenly, all the “Hungry” signs disappear.

My son clearly is worried, because that is what he does best.  Finally, one day, I get down to eye level.  “Zach, you’re asking a lot of questions about homelessness.  I want you to understand that we are not going to be homeless.  Do you understand?”  He nods, staring at me earnestly, waiting to hear more.  “We have enough money for all the things we need and some of the things we want.  And even if we didn’t have any money, even if Daddy lost his job and I couldn’t find one, we would go live with Grandma and Grandpa.  Or Uncle M and Aunt A.  We have plenty of people who would let us live with them.  You are not going to be homeless.”

He smiles and nods, and I think he gets it.  I have not been 100% truthful, because of course it could happen to anyone, but we do have a pretty wide safety net of friends and family, and I have managed to reassure him without making him think that homeless people are in some way responsible for their fate or could have prevented it.

Before we had kids, J used to joke about the “Why is the sky blue?” phase, but we covered that question eight months ago, along with clouds, evaporation, and molecules.  These days, almost five years into being a parent, I would give my eyeteeth for a question as simple as that.

Part two will post tomorrow.

19 responses to “Questions (part one)

  1. Zach sounds pretty inquisitive! I’m glad that you had at least semi-realistic conversations with him about homelessness. There’s no need to make him worry, but developing compassion for those who have less than us (and suffer more than us) never hurts, right? It seems like you guys are on the right track. You might try giving your lunch to someone, even if there are no “hungry” signs up. Or leave it next to someone who is sleeping. Just be careful 🙂

  2. What a sensitive, thoughtful little guy. Kids like that grow up to change the word.

  3. I agree with the above comments. He sounds like a wonderful, curious little guy, and being honest with him will not only teach him to be honest, but will provide him with a sensitive, informed view of the not-so-nice parts of life. Good job!

    Having said that, I am dreading the question stage!!

  4. He’s so sweet! I actually WAS homeless before, when I was young… I was about 16 and 17 when I first became homeless. I used to hang out at the Boys And Girls Club because it was only a dollar a year and it was somewhere to be, even though I was almost too old to be there! All of the little kids used to ask me the most honest, blatant questions. The logistics of homelessness were just so confusing to them! My favorite question that a lot of little kids asked was, “How do you go to the bathroom?”
    Also I remember that when I Stayed in a homeless shelter, sometimes we would find pictures or cards made by little kids, at our dinner places or on our pillows. Maybe Zachary would enjoy doing something like that… you guys could make a bunch of pictures or cards, and then drop them off at a homeless shelter, so Zachary could ask the director some questions and see how a lot of people are trying to help the homeless!

  5. I think you handled it beautifully. I’ve had the same sort of conversation with my kids and the same concerns: wanting to reassure them but also not blame people who are homeless for their condition. We’ve also had some conversations about mental illness. These are all tough ones but important ones.

  6. Nicely handled — although I know what you mean about wishing the questions would come at a more convenient time. I usually let my kids ask people with missing limbs and such if they would mind answering questions — most of them are very willing to talk. It’s trickier with homeless people — they’re not all like the guy I used to give my change to every day on the way home from the library in grad school. My son is the same — I have to explain homelessness and fire safety while simultaneously reassuring him that it is very, very unlike, almost impossible, that we will end up homeless or our house will burn down.

  7. Can I just tell you that I love you for this and leave? Because this subject is too close for me. But I think you answered it well.

    Very well.


  8. I got to field 100 of the mundane why questions today. I think I may have gotten off easy.

  9. Those questions are the pits. I am thankful that we moved away from our old home before these questions began.

  10. I struggle with the hard questions, too. It’s difficult to know how much information is appropriate, and how much is too much. It sounds like you’re doing a way better job than I am at figuring it out.

  11. Oh, the questions we moms have to field in this world today. It’s very hard to explain anything without scaring the kids. You did a great job, though.

    I’m starting to long for the days when all I had to explain was where babies really come from and what in the world the dogs are doing when they’re humping each other. I broke down and told the truth about babies, but I just tell him the dogs are wrestling.

  12. we haven’t gotten to this phase yet…our whys are simpler, at three. and there is less visible homelessness where we live. but still.

    these are the questions – and the answers – that will shape how he sees the world, break his cocoon of innocence and hopefully build empathy and other necessary qualities in its place…and i wait, watching, wondering how it will all come down.

  13. This was so moving to me I could just see your son’s face when u told you’d all be ok what a sweet soul

  14. ahh, he reminds me so much of my Seven.

  15. Some of them actually are responsible for their fate although definitely not all. We don’t exactly have a saving culture in the US, which might have helped a few of these people bridge a bit longer. And while homelessness can happen to anyone, a work ethic that considers working 7 jobs is probably as good a buffer as you can get. I worried about homelessness as a kid too and my response was to do really well in school. I looked at other kids wasting time in school and thought to myself, ‘They’ll probably end up homeless.’ Now I hope I was wrong about that and just feel sorry for people without four walls. Whether they could have avoided it or not.

  16. It’s so tough trying to figure out what small children can grasp conceptually. I think you’re right that fundamentally it’s anxiety at stake, and that’s what really asks for an answer.

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