talk to kids about homelessness

“What do I say?”  How to talk to kids about homelessness

An empathetic approach to talking to kids about homelessness and poverty goes a long way.

As parents, we want to protect our children from the more frightening aspects of life, including homelessness and poverty. But children see more than we think they do – and like so many complicated issues, we want them to get their information from us, not TV or their friends at school. Importantly, children have an innate desire to help others and are interested in social issues. We can foster this natural tendency and channel it into action by having open, honest, intentional conversations about the issues of poverty and homelessness. Below are some guidelines for start these conversations.

Understand your own point of view

What your child needs is guidance from you about how to think about and respond to these issues, so it’s important to sort through your own attitudes before bringing it up. What do you want your children to know about poverty and homelessness? In what ways would you and your family like to help? If this is an issue that you feel strongly about, do you give money to people you see or do you prefer to give to organizations that can help solve the problem of poverty on a larger scale? Once you’re clear on your own feelings, it’s time to talk with your kids.

Keep it age appropriate

These conversations don’t have to be long or drawn out. Start simply and continue to talk as your children get older. Five- to 8-year-olds are transitioning from being me-centered to seeing themselves as part of a group, and are becoming interested in solving the problems they see. With small children, it’s also important to communicate that they are safe. Let them know that while they have a home and food to eat, some people are not as fortunate. Older kids should understand that some kids and families are homeless – and the affect that homelessness can have on kids’ ability to learn and be successful in school, make friends and stay healthy.

Lead with empathy

Start by expressing your own feelings, by saying something like “I think it’s sad that person doesn’t have anywhere to live.” Make sure they understand that being homeless doesn’t make someone a bad person. Help kids understand that people are homeless for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it’s because they had an injury or got sick and couldn’t afford to pay for a doctor. Maybe they lost their job and couldn’t find another one, or maybe there was a combination of things that happened to force them from their homes. Help kids think about what homeless people might be feeling rather than just treating them as an object to be talked about. If you hear your child — or any kid in her social circle — making fun of a homeless person, be clear that disrespect is not okay.

A word of warning: sometimes parents try to use homeless people as an example of what could happen to the child if he or she doesn’t stay in school or doesn’t go to college, or engages in risky behavior. This is a bad idea, and it is generally not true. You want to use the situation to cultivate feelings of empathy and action, not shaming.

Inspire action

Talk about services that are available in your city, and how you can make a difference: “In our city, there are places where people can go to get a good meal and a place to sleep, but this isn’t the same as having their own house.” Talk about how your family can help, and ask kids for their ideas: “what do you think we could do to help?”  If you get them used to thinking this way now, it will become a way of life. Here are some ideas for kids of all ages:

  • Have them go with you to the local food pantry or housing shelter in your area and show them the options for helping those in need.
  • Collecting items to be used by someone else is very tangible for kids. Ask your child to help you gather unexpired food or gently-used household items to give to charity.
  • Perhaps you feel comfortable giving homeless people food, rather than money. Pack a few extra sandwiches when you go out or order an extra meal at a restaurant. Explain to your child that by giving food, you know you’re helping right away.
  • Donate time at a shelter or give money to programs that help homeless people. Explain these efforts to your child.
  • Birthdays and holidays are a good time to talk about how fortunate we are. Some kids ask their friends to donate to a non-profit in lieu of birthday gifts, or do a “toy-purge” – giving outgrown toys and games to charity before receiving new presents. Building this tradition around a holiday inspires them to do it each year.

Whatever you choose to do, don’t shy away from these conversations. If you never say anything about the people you see who are clearly in need, you may send the message that it’s not okay to bring it up or that you’re indifferent. When your child grows curious, that’s your cue to start the conversation.

For more ideas about volunteering with children, check out this blog post from our Volunteerism series.