Children, just like the rest of us, are getting more exposure to homelessness than ever before. Much of this happens on the street. But increasingly, many of their peers are homeless. Statistics from the US Department of Education show more than 1.3 million homeless youth enrolled in public school in 2017. While the majority of these students were living “doubled-up” or with another family, the overlap between housed and unhoused children is growing.
A conversation about homelessness can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. With a bit of forethought and planning, parents can help children nurture the natural compassion that often comes with youth.
Embrace Their Curiosity
Children are constantly striving to understand the world around them. This hunger for answers gives rise to questions and drives growth. It’s up to us to encourage this curiosity, embrace it, and funnel it toward constructive conclusions.
The questions can be innocuous enough, usually stemming from something they see or hear about. Children are adept at spotting differences. They pick up on things that don’t match how they view the world around them.
What are those tents for?
What does that sign say?
Why is that person asking for money?
There’s no judgement in questions like these.
The best way to deal with these questions is before they arise. Do you live in a community that has homeless people? Do you come across homeless individuals during the morning commute to school, the store, baseball, etc.? Then it may be best to draw your child’s attention to their unhoused neighbors.
What could that conversation look like?
A parent could begin by asking their children what they already know about the topic. Do you see those tents over there? Do you know who lives in them? Perhaps they hadn’t noticed them before. Or you may be surprised to learn what thoughts/opinions your children already hold. This puts you in a better position to address any misconceptions or fears they may have.
How can you explain why some people end up living on the street?
The details of your explanation may well differ depending on the age of your child. Tell your child that having a home costs money. Some adults simply don’t have the money they need to live in a house.
It’s important to adopt a sympathetic tone when giving this answer. Kind, compassionate messaging may be all that’s needed to engender those same feelings in your child. They’ll be quick to pick up on unspoken cues. We can use this to our advantage by fostering feelings of warmth and understanding to our fellow residents.
What Not to Say to Children
Homelesshub.ca gives a good warning about what to avoid when speaking to young people about homelessness.
Help children understand that being homeless doesn’t mean that someone has done something wrong. It isn’t an illness and it certainly isn’t anything someone wants. It can be a result of difficult times in a person’s life.
Empathetic children grow into empathetic adults. As you work hard to reinforce the natural compassion that’s already there, children can learn valuable lessons that will hold them in good stead when their viewpoints are challenged in the future.
Parents may hesitate to initiate a conversation about homelessness with their children so as to protect their innocence. This fear is misplaced. We may liken this topic to the sex talk, or discussing drug and alcohol use with young ones. When left to their peers or their own devices, wrong conclusions can be reached on important issues. Wrong ideas are challenging to correct.
Don’t be afraid to broach the subject of homelessness with your children. The topic will come up sooner or later. Homeless people are our neighbors and our children should be encouraged to view them as such.