A while back I was sat in a busy railway station with my then 17-year-old son. While I was daydreaming he was approached by a stranger who engaged him in conversation.
Almost immediately my son had taken out his wallet and had handed over a pound coin. The stranger continued talking and my son who then handed over the rest of the change in his pockets, all 47p of it. At this point I intervened and the stranger quickly left, counting the money.
There was nothing particularly threatening about the stranger, he was reasonably well dressed and spoke in a calm albeit slightly urgent tone. The exchange happened very quickly, probably less than a minute. However it all seemed like slow motion as I tried to make sense of the situation and tried to work out how I was going to intervene in a way that didn’t look heavy handed.
My son and I pieced things together later and we established that the stranger had said he needed money to catch a train home, as he was about £2 short of the fare. There was a fairly embarrassed silence between us for a moment whilst we both though about what had happened.
For me there was a deep sense of worry about vulnerability. Had my son been the victim of a rip off merchant? Had the stranger played a vulnerable individual with a well rehearsed script “I need £2 for the train home”, that worked on dozens of people every day?
If it was this easy, how was my son going to cope with situations like this throughout the rest of life? On the other hand, was he doing the right thing, being the Good Samaritan, helping a fellow traveller in distress?
I’ve mentioned this incident to a few friends with teenage children and we end up pondering the same questions? How do kids learn to deal with these sorts of challenges? How do they strike the right balance between compassion and indifference? Is the best way to learn from failure? Can we actually teach them anything or do they need to work it out for themselves?
My sense of anxiety around this has been heightened by my wife’s response, “oh my god, he could be in university halls this time next year, what will happen to him……..?” Calm down, he’ll work it out, has been my response (he has to… that’s life).
As it turned out my son and I had a very sensible and measured conversation about the incident later on. Drawing on experiences of my own and the experience of others we started to piece together an approach / strategy /coping mechanism (call it what you like), for how he might deal with people trying to take advantage of him (in whatever circumstances).
Hopefully this gives him some protection and doesn’t smother the generous and giving side of his nature, which some might think is a bit naive, but I think is one of his more endearing features (by the way he’s 6 foot 3 and built like a Grizzly Bear).
So what’s the PONT?
- That could be the best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son. Learn the lessons.
- Offer people practical help (food or buy the ticket) rather than handing over cash.
- Don’t ever become cynical and indifferent towards people who you could help.
Picture Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Male_kodiak_bear_face.JPG