NYPD Officer Helps Man on Street: Teaching Empathy to Kids

Posted November 30, 2012 by

Photo of elisabeth

This week, the photo of NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo giving a man a pair of new winter boots inspired so many comments, likes, tweets and shares on Facebook and Twitter that he ended up on The Today Show this morning. If you haven’t heard the story already, this young police officer noticed a man on the sidewalk with no shoes in bitterly cold New York weather. DiPrimo used his own money to buy the man a pair of new boots. (The store gave Officer DePrimo a discount when they learned what he was doing.) “I really didn’t think about the money,” he said. Arizona Tourist Jennifer Foster noticed what was happening, was reminded of a similar kindness her father had done for someone as a police officer in Phoenix, and she snapped a photo. She sent it, along with a message of appreciation, to the New York Police Department. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Last night at the dinner table, my husband, son and I talked about this story, about how compassionate this officer was and how what he did showed true kindness. We asked each other, “What would you do if you saw a person with no shoes in the freezing cold?”

Let’s face it, teaching empathy to kids isn’t always easy. Although as parents we may think they should know innately what it means to stand in someone else’s shoes, empathy is actually a quality that develops over time for most people. James Lehman once humorously said that “It often seems that teen agers have all the empathy of crocodiles,” and it can certainly feel that way when your child is constantly leaving messes around the house, picking on their siblings, or being disrespectful to you.

That’s where I think these conversations — and these random acts of kindness — come in. Talking to your child about stories like this one and asking “What would you do?” is a good way to start the ball rolling and just get them thinking about how other people might be feeling. Going out of your way to be kind or help others lets your child know that it’s important to you — and is one of the most valuable things you can teach your kids, in my opinion.

Why is it so important? I believe most good choices flow from empathy: The choice to not bully someone. The choice to not hit your sister. The choice to sit with another student at school who seems down. The choice to help someone by getting them a pair of warm boots. The fact is, it’s very hard to be cruel or unkind when you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine for a moment how they’re feeling.

So one night before Thanksgiving, I dragged my son with me to pick out food for a dinner for needy families in our area — people who couldn’t afford the meal otherwise. At first Alex said he wanted to stay home, but when we got to the supermarket, his eyes lit up as we began choosing things for another family’s table. (He even insisted on getting the biggest turkey he could find and some extra appetizers and drinks, although I’m not sure Gatorade is a traditional Thanksgiving beverage.)

Slowly, (fingers crossed) the message is sinking in.

And the answer to the question last night, “Would you help this man?”

“Of course,” my son replied, without skipping a beat. “What else would I do?”

(One of those rare moments as a parent where you smile and nod but wish you could high-five your spouse.)


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. RickH Report

    I like your article and at first thought the same way you did. I continue to believe the officer is a good man, but here is my dilemma…
    In the wake of this incident we have learned that the NYTimes tracked down the homeless man and found him again with no shoes on. When asked about them he said he was selling them on Ebay to the highest bidder, that he had been getting a lot of publicity and he wanted to cash in on it.
    Okay, fair enough, but are you going to buy another pair of shoes with the money so your feet aren’t cold? No the man said because he likes to be barefoot so that tourists and people will buy him shoes. This is his job! Scamming people to buy him shoes over and over again so he can sell them or trade them.
    My question is this: Are we teaching our children empathy or are we teaching them to trust and give gifts to homeless people who are EXTREMELY likely to take advantage of them? Is this cop a hero or just another person who was scammed by a savvy,professional panhandler? I think the subject deserves a little more thought!
    Thanks for your opinion.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Hi Rick. Thank you for chiming in. I have heard some of the same reports that you refer to, and I’ve been thinking about them, as well. Here’s where I’ve come to with this: when you give a gift to someone, you don’t have any control over what they do with it. It’s theirs, after all, to do with what they please. What the officer did showed humanity at its best: empathy and compassion personified in that moment. As my fellow blogger Denise Rowden said, “I think people are losing sight of what the officer did in an effort to help someone he saw as being in need. Regardless of what happened after that moment, it doesn’t change that fact.”

      I hear what you’re saying about homeless people. There is a lot of mental illness and addiction on the street, that is certain. Our family will try to give food to homeless people rather than money, but sometimes we give money. I don’t know what that person is going through, after all. I was talking to a man who repairs shoes the other day, and he said, “What would I want someone to do if that was my brother?'” His friend’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent some time on the streets. His question to me was, “Would you want to trade with him?”

      This story touched so many people out there. In this overly-cynical world, I think we are all hungry to hear about acts of goodness and grace. I guess I’m choosing to see the good in this. I do wonder what that officer or others will do when they want to help a homeless person the next time. Maybe the question is not, “Should we give?” but “How should we give?”

      Thanks again for commenting — I truly appreciate it.



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