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Those Homeless People: A Teachable Moment in Empathy

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About a year ago, individuals began holding signs up at stoplights in my small city—ripped pieces of cardboard with words drawn onto it with black Sharpie. “I hate to be a bother, but down on my luck.”

My children noticed. “What does his sign say, Mama?”

“Not lazy. Need food or work. Anything helps.” I read.

“Ooooohhhh, what can we give him?” (This from my particularly tender-hearted daughter.)

I think to myself: We’re not giving him anything. And then I feel bad.


The signs make me feel terrible. That homeless man has just forced my parenting hand, since of course I’m not in the car alone—It’s my children who watch me drive past, who listen to my reasoning about how “these people” will choose to spend the money they get, who watch me say no.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the human experience is empathy—sharing someone else’s feelings or thinking about things from a different perspective. We usually think of empathy as a trait a person either got a lot of or missed out on at birth, but twin studies show us that nature, or heritability, controls less than half of your child’s empathetic behavior—the rest of it you’re teaching, or not teaching, right now.

As a result, the handmade sign is pushing a teachable moment into a space where I was happy to have none. My action or inaction teaches no matter what I choose to do—whether I ignore the man standing there with the sign, give him money, or talk to him.

When I was a new parent, my heart felt raw and open. After the birth of my first son, I remember passing a guy outside Walmart who was holding one of those bedraggled signs. All I could think was that he was someone’s baby and my heart ached for him. I made my husband turn the car around so I could go back and give him money.

Somehow, over time, I lost the emboldened sense that my actions could make a dent in humanity’s problems. The pressure of constant mothering meant I could only focus on things that would immediately impact my kids in a short-sighted way. Now I could pass a dozen homeless people, purposefully dragging my children past the potential danger that they posed.

But I kept thinking about that one sign: “Sorry to be a bother.”

This one man wasn’t the bother. It’s the homelessness, disabilities, poor life choices, addiction, and our own suspicions that are the distasteful, guilt-ridden, awkward, and ugly things that we shove to the periphery. It’s hard to talk to your kids about ugly things. And even harder to solve the problems.

As a neuroscientist, I know that empathy training at any age makes people more empathetic. We don’t need to wait until kids are older to start working on empathy—start now.

So that's what we did. First, my family focused on what is the same between us and the homeless people: We all need hope. I asked my 8-year-old daughter to draw something for the sign holders people we saw She drew cards with two hearts on the front and thought for a long time about what to write inside: “Sometimes people don't treat you well, but there can also be a hidden friend.”


Then we thought about what might physically help. We packaged her cards up with some nuts, a granola bar, applesauce, and water and put them into bags that my daughter calls Happy Bags. We keep them in our backseat, ready to go. If my daughter’s in the car and sees someone standing at the stoplight, she’ll scramble to get one ready, slide the window down, and hand it out. And when I look back in the rear view mirror after the light turns green, she’s always beaming as we drive away. The Happy Bags make her happy too.

Benevolent acts make us feel good inside —Giving gifts to another person makes us feel happier than giving gifts to ourselves. In a recent study, researchers gave people either a $5 or a $20 bill and instructed half of the participants to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were instructed to spend the money on someone else. The people who were told to spend the money on someone else reported being happier over the course of the day, regardless of the amount of money they spent. It turns out that empathy has its own reward: happiness.

Every day, there are opportunities to be purposeful about fostering empathy as a life skill. These small efforts are good for us, good for our kids, and good for society. The concrete step of spending your money and time on someone else will not just bring warm fuzzy feelings, but will actually change brain connections in our kids, making them more likely to be empathetic people in the future.

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