A Tale of Two Children

My daughter called me the other day after a night out dining in Birmingham to celebrate the birthday of a friend. It had been a good evening, nothing too madly extravagant, she’s a student after all, but enjoyable food, perhaps a little too rich for comfort in the dessert department, and good company. On the way home she passed a homeless man sitting in a doorway. He asked if they had any change to spare. She did not, having paid for her meal by debit card in our modern, monitored, cashless society. Wages snatches and bank robberies down, hooray! Online fraud, account hacking, data mining by companies and ‘targeted’ ads through the roof. Boo!

She felt guilty that she had to say ‘no’ to him and go on her way. He didn’t harangue her and her friends, or swear, or grumble or threaten or intimidate. He said he understood and thanked them for listening and wished them a good night.

I consoled her and during our conversation she rehearsed some of the caveats and concerns a decent middle class young woman might have: she knew some people used the money for drink or drugs, she didn’t want to infantilise or ‘discincentivise’ him etc, but at the end of it all she wished she had had some money to give him, and she was going to make sure she carried some change in future and maybe donate some food to food banks.

I have my thoughts about that – charity is a great sticking plaster for governments shirking their responsibilities – whatever happened to socialism, one nation Conservatism, the idea we are ‘all in this together’? If the state expects acquiescence and buy in from its citizens it had better look after the weak or the violent will inherit the earth.

But the thing that surprised me was the reaction of my son when I told him this story. He is twelve. His face creased in a concerned frown. His first comment was, ‘he was probably scamming her’. When I pursued this, he said ‘they’ weren’t really homeless but were just taking money off people. We had a chat. I suggested that there probably were people doing exactly that, but it was unlikely someone was sat in a doorway in central Birmingham in the freezing cold at that time of night to score a few pennies in change if they had somewhere better to be. At 1600 hours possibly. At midnight, not likely.

We kicked the idea around for a few minutes until the blandishments of Fortnite overrode social theory and risk assessment.

Did this suggest a Victorian truth? Girls are nice but gullible and Boys hard nosed but clear sighted? Well I’ve peddled the same middle of the road social democratic line of societal integration and inclusivity on social, racial and gender lines to both of them. I’m a Guardian reading, BBC Radio Four listening fool. I draw the line at Vegan Soy Milk Yoghurt Knitting but I have definite rules about ‘understand a little more, blame a little less’ to flip John Major’s aphorism on its head.

So did hard wired gender bias take over and filter this message to my daughter’s brain and my son’s brain and leave wildly different results?

I don’t think so.

In his reaction I can hear the clear voice of the parents and grandparents of some of his peers.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I have no desire for him to grow up to be a mug or an easy touch for charlatans, fraudsters or sturdy beggars. I do however want compassion and empathy to be his touchstones, the first emotions he reaches for rather than contempt and condemnation. Sure there are people who will try and scam money off others. I just want both my children to be aware that the threat is just as likely to come from someone peddling a mainstream brand of unnecessary first world dross, as from someone pretending to be homeless, and far more likely to succeed.

The pretend homeless person may take a few pence in change from you, the purveyor of empty dreams will take your wages, your data, your future, your house and your soul if you aren’t careful.

So what do I do?

I don’t want to do a hard sell on him, but I won’t just agree with him when he repeats the simplistic twaddle that infects much of our public discourse. So I’ll continue to look puzzled and ask him a few follow up questions and play games with him and be his Dad, and hope that common sense and truth can successfully filter through to counter fear and prejudice.

Keep your fingers crossed.