‘Street wise’ or ‘Street smart’ is an old expression meaning, ‘savvy to the ways of living on the streets and those who dwell there’. Must we choose between kids be ‘safe and fearful’ or ‘open and vulnerable’? I don’t think so. Here are some politically incorrect ways to raise street smart kids. I claim as my muse and guide for the wisdom presented in this article, the most street smart man of them all, John Steinbeck.
In his book Travels With Charley especially, but indeed all his books, Steinbeck outlines the way to peace amongst fellow members of the human race. Be they in on the street, under a cardboard box, in a Madison Avenue penthouse, in the white picket fence enclosure across the street, in jail, on a bus or sitting across from you at Starbucks. John Steinbeck had a miraculous way of writing so that people, no matter who, what or where they are, appear in their real light. And it is usually a more flattering light than ‘society’ (I’ve come to hate that word) shows them.
So how can a parent, wanting to protect her young from the dangers of ‘the street’, instill a hatred-free, cruelty-free, injustice-free, prejudice-free way of looking at people in her children? Is this the impossible dichotomy? Must children learn either fear and safety or openness and danger? I hope not. Here’s a little story from my own life.
Our oldest son is 20 years old. He owns a bad-ass, redneck, Cherry metal flake, Pontiac Firebird, which I lovingly refer to as his ‘tool car’. He isn’t a tool. He’s campaigns for Human justice, canvasses for the DNC and gives to charity. But he does look like a tool in his loud, red beast. Recently, this paragon decided to drive said car downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan (Division St., I might add), park under a bridge downtown and ride his longboard down the deserted streets of a notoriously dangerous inner-city street. Naturally, his car attracted some attention from the locals. Now he could have gotten all anal-retentive, grabbed a tire iron and fended off the horde. He did not.
I swear the boy has not a drop of good American distrust or vengeance (some would say common sense) in his veins. He made friends with the curious onlookers who camped out under the bridge in that one semi-private spot, atop the embankment. Only a vagrant will understand what I mean about that sweet spot. He asked his new-found (very large) friends to car-sit while he went for a long-board joyride at 2 am. Now he did give them a few bucks (not as much as they wanted and only after scolding them for being greedy, saying, ‘hey man, I’ve a college kid; you KNOW that I don’t have much money! Vagrants have to be very desperate to beg from a college guy who is usually poorer than the vagrant himself).
Now our son knew full well that he could return to find his Firebird a gutted shell. He did not. His Lord Protector had bouncer had done his job faithfully. Upon returning to his car at 6 am, the boys under the bridge were just rising and greeted him with a cheery, ‘Good Morning’. Steinbeck would have been proud.
I know, this situation could have gone either way or any which way but loose. But it didn’t. And I believe that it was because our son has learned to treat all people, under bridge dweller to CEO with dignity and humanity. For more parenting advice that’s off the beaten track, visit me at Parenting Hotline.