Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Helping the less fortunate begins as a child

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"There is a rough-looking guy who goes through the rubbish on our street, and what have I done for him?" Photo / Dean Purcell
"There is a rough-looking guy who goes through the rubbish on our street, and what have I done for him?" Photo / Dean Purcell

I go and help my 5-year-old son with his storywriting at school a couple of mornings a week which means sitting in on mat time. I'm not sure who learns the most here. Be helpful, share and try your hardest. And put the lids on the felt pens.

On this particular day, one child was having an attack of the dwindles and the others all tried to pat and comfort him. Forget trekking to Machu Picchu, there is actually nothing more magnificent in the world than seeing small kids being kind to each other.

One of the most moving things I have read recently was an anecdote in Roald Dahl's autobiography where he talked about getting a sadistic caning at his brutal boarding school, punished for something he didn't do. When he was writing it, aged in his 80s, Dahl said he remembered how afterwards, when he could barely walk and was clutching his poor buttocks, all the children gathered around to console him, with caring sympathy.

One small boy, not even a particular friend, was so enraged at the injustice of it all that he declared he was going to sit down and write to his father who was someone high-powered in Westminster and make him put things right. The boy did write to his dad, but nothing ever happened and the horror continued. However, Dahl said he would think of it for the rest of his life and it made him feel better about human nature.

After school I was reading the paper in a glow of beneficence about human nature and stumbled over the item in the Sideswipe column about Omaha people wanting to band together to get a homeless man kicked out of their upmarket suburb. Maybe that's why I posted piously on Facebook "Did anyone think to ask why the guy was living rough? Or were they just worried he was using their fancy outdoor showers. Also: 'heavily tattooed' as shorthand for 'bad sort'? Aren't most hipsters in Ponsonby?" It is dangerous to bask in self-righteousness. (How fate lurks to sock you with the stuffed eel skin, as P.G. Wodehouse would say.)

Honestly, would I have been any different than the Omaha residents? Would I have bowled up to the homeless guy and asked him to tell me about his terrible upbringing or drug and alcohol dependency issues or mental health problems? Or would I have hurriedly shooed my children away from him?

Get real, Deborah. There is a rough-looking guy who goes through the rubbish on our street, and what have I done for him? I think I should offer him some proper food - at the very least a carton of Up and Go. But I feel awkward and don't know how to do it. It seems insulting to offer "charity" and I don't know how to offer help without looking patronising.

See, kids wouldn't bother about that. It seems children instinctively try to help each other, but somewhere along the way they learn not to. And sadly, as adults the only time we do feel emboldened to butt into other people's business is when we think we, or our children, are being threatened.

An example: I take my kids for swimming lessons at a public swimming baths. Every week when we arrive for our lesson there are two pale young-ish men who don't really swim, but just sit in the learners' pool full of children not talking to each other or anyone else, but just staring rather a lot. This makes my daughter uncomfortable - and me too, frankly.

Recently, my daughter declared she did not want to get in the pool if "they" were there. So I rang up the pool to ask if they had noticed the men and whether there was anything untoward about them. The pool manager explained they were harmless and their odd behaviour was because they were not the "full quid". (It's quite a novelty when someone forgets to use PC language.) So I told my daughter we needed to be kind to the men, not scared of them.

As to my local guy, I've decided the best I can do for now is try biffing out more good, non-perishable food into the wheelie bin for him to find.

- NZ Herald

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