Learning to be generous with what we have is difficult for most people. By nature we’re selfish. Our instincts drive us to find food, shelter, and clothing— not for strangers, but for ourselves and our immediate family. Nurturing compassion and generosity for others means demonstrating it through your own behavior, but also celebrating it when you see it in your young person. Today’s story is one of my favorite examples.
On the way to the toy store
At one point in her career, Kim Dedeker lived in Caracas, Venezuela, with her husband and five-year-old son, Bryan. As an executive on foreign assignment with a U.S. company, Kim was wealthy by local standards. Per capita income in Venezuela is about $13,000 a year, with 30 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day.
In addition to being a poor country, it’s also a dangerous one. Caracas has the second highest homicide rate of any large city in the world. Accepting the assignment there was a difficult but deliberate choice. Kim believes it’s only by taking risks that some of life’s greatest rewards are possible. One of the most touching examples of that for her happened in Caracas on the way to the toy store.
Bryan had been saving his money for months to buy one of the wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures to add to his collection. He’d finally saved up the required 800 bolivars, about twenty U.S. dollars. Kim strapped Bryan into the back seat of her car and started the drive to the toy store. But unlike a drive to a toy store in the United States, however, there is no way to drive across Caracas without coming face to face with the harsh reality of local life. Poverty is all around you.
But it was the danger that was on Kim’s mind as they ventured outside their compound of largely U.S. expatriate homes and apartments. Kidnappings and carjackings were not unusual. As a result, it’s common practice to not even come to a stop at an intersection if you can avoid it, and you certainly don’t roll down your windows.
On the way to the toy store, Kim came to an intersection and had to stop for a red light with oncoming traffic. She noticed a woman on the corner whose appearance led Kim to assume was homeless or at least severely impoverished. She was holding a baby of about eighteen months, and standing beside her was a young boy about the same age as Bryan. The two mothers made eye contact with each other, one destitute and one well off, both surely considering for that brief instant in time what life might be like for the other.
While Kim was still waiting for the light to turn green, the boy outside began walking toward the car. As any protective mother would, Kim turned her immediate concern to her own safety and that of her son. Is this how the many unfortunate incidents in Caracas start, with a child providing distraction?
But the mothers had not been the only ones who’d made eye contact. The boy saw Bryan in the back seat as well, and it was his window he was approaching. Before Kim could react, Bryan rolled down his window. The two boys were face to face with each other, separated by only a few inches of space, but separated even further by language and the harsh contrast of their economic realities. Without exchanging a single word, Bryan reached into his pocket, pulled out his 800 bolivars, and handed it to the other boy through the window. The traffic light turned green, and Kim cautiously continued through the intersection.
The next few minutes passed quietly with both driver and passenger processing what had just happened. Kim finally broke the silence by asking, “What are you feeling right now?” Thoughtfully, Bryan responded,
I’m feeling really good, Mom, because I think that little boy needed that money a lot more than I needed another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
As you can imagine, Kim was marveling at the selflessness her five-year-old had just shown. She debated in her head what to do when they arrived at the toy store. Should she reward her son’s generosity by buying him the toy anyway? Or should she afford him the full experience of giving by feeling the loss required to be truly benevolent?
When they arrived, they found the exact figure Bryan was after, a rare one imported from the United States, unlikely to be there on a future trip. That made Kim’s decision even harder. Bryan looked at the price tag on the figure and said to his mom, “It’s 810 bolivars.”
“You’re right,” Kim responded, “You almost had enough.”
“But I don’t have any now,” he said, just fully realizing the impact of his decision in the car a few minutes earlier.
Having made her decision, Kim offered, “I could buy it for you, if you want.”
After a thoughtful pause, Bryan said, “No. I don’t think I want it today.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind getting it for you.”
“Yeah, I know,” Bryan answered,
But I can probably get that turtle anytime I want, either because I’ll save my money or because you can afford to buy it for me. It just doesn’t feel important now.
Of course, you probably can’t give money to every needy person who crosses your path. In some cases that might not even be a good idea for you or for them. And that’s a great conversation to have with your young person after sharing this story. When should you— and should you not— give to those less fortunate?
But for most of us, the problem is not curtailing our boundless generosity from the many worthy causes we can’t afford to support. For most, it’s generating the empathy for those worthy causes to begin with, seeing how truly blessed we are relative to the rest of the world, and coming to the realization (like Bryan did) that we can probably have that shiny bauble some other day, and that for now it just doesn’t seem that important.
As with all the stories in these podcasts, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- Do you think it was a good idea for Bryan to give that 800 Bolivars to the boy on the street? Why or why not?
- As a parent, do you think it was wise of Kim to offer to buy Bryan that figure anyway?
- The median household income worldwide is about $10,000 (U.S. dollars) a year. That means about half of all families in the world live on more than that and half live on less than that. How much money does your family live on per year?
- How much of your allowance or income do you think is appropriate to give to charities?
- What charities do you support?
- What should you do if a stranger approaches you on the street and asks you for money? What kind of things should you consider when deciding what to do?
- What are some reasons why you should not give money to someone who appears to need it more than you?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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