When your child asks questions about a person you see sleeping on the street, or someone resting on the sidewalk with their belongings, it can be difficult to think up a good answer on the fly.
To you, it can seem like a loaded question, even though, from the child’s perspective, it probably stems from simple curiosity. Your ideal answer should touch on concepts like empathy, compassion, and needed societal change in an age-appropriate way.
Not an easy feat when you’re also trying to get across town in time for soccer practice.
If you want to explain a complex issue like homelessness in a way that your child will understand, it’s best not to wait for the spontaneous questions to come to start thinking about your answer.
Take some time to think about how you’d like to respond when your child asks you questions about homelessness, whenever their natural curiosity kicks in.
You could also try talking to your kid about homelessness before they encounter it for the first time. That way, they’ll have a working understanding when they do meet a homeless person. This approach also gives you more control over what exactly your kids are learning about homelessness, since they’re learning it right from you and not from friends or the TV.
Here are some ideas on how that conversation could go, depending on the age of your child:
Now is the perfect time to have a conversation about homelessness with children between the ages of 2 and 6.
If your child is asking questions, it’s best to respond with simple answers.
If your child asks why a person is sitting on the street with their belongings, explain that some people have no place to eat, sleep, bathe, or keep their things.
Your child will probably want to know why that is. You can respond that for grown-ups, it costs money to have a home, and not everyone can afford it.
With just these two answers, you’ve given your child a pretty good basic understanding. That may satisfy their curiosity. Or they may be interested in one or more specific aspects of homelessness. Do your best to answer their questions simply. If you don’t know how to answer one, just say you don’t know and that you can find out together.
In having this conversation with your child, you may be surprised to find you don’t need to spend nearly as much time emphasizing compassion and empathy for homeless people as you may while talking to other adults. For many kids, these feelings come naturally.
Kids will often want to do something to help these people they’ve just learned about. So, have a few ideas of things you can do in your area in mind to suggest.
For children of this age, it’s best to have something they can actively participate in. Something like donating money to a charity is a bit too abstract. If you want to donate, have them pick out items at the store. Explain where they’ll be going and who they’ll be helping. Participating in a hands-on way will make it feel more real for your child.
Children from about age 7 to age 12 are likely to have some experience with the concept of homelessness. This can either be from meeting homeless people on the street or seeing them depicted in movies or TV.
Kids at this age are likely to have more in-depth curiosity about how people become homeless and how they live. They may or may not ask you about these curiosities, so you may have to start the conversation.
A good way to start is to ask your child what homelessness means to them. This will get them talking and allow you to gauge their level of understanding. Then you can work off what they tell you to add more insight or correct any misconceptions they may have.
If they’ve encountered a homeless person behaving erratically, you may want to talk about things like mental illness and addiction.
There are a few things you may want to avoid when talking to kids about homelessness. It’s a tricky subject, and it’s normal for kids to feel unsettled or upset by it.
Though it may be uncomfortable at times, avoid lying to your child about homelessness or avoiding their questions. You can keep your answers simple and age-appropriate but do your best to answer honestly.
You also shouldn’t try to “make an example” of a homeless person. Some people, when they see a person on the street, turn to their child and say something along the lines of: “See? This is what will happen to you if you don’t stay in school.”
Needless to say, this is not a good look. Not only is it completely rude, but it also reinforces harmful stereotypes about how people become homeless. When you say, “this is what happens if you don’t get a good job” or when you drop out of college, or when you do drugs, or fill in the blank, you’re making an assumption about how that person became homeless, which may or may not be true.
And you’re using this imaginary backstory to vilify the person right in front of you, making them the living, breathing bad example in your “teachable moment.”
So, this kind of behavior isn’t good for you. It’s not good for the other person. And it’s not good for your child, as it can cause a lot of anxiety, fear, and confusion for them.
After every talk, it’s good to ask if your child has any more questions about what you’ve talked about. Once you’ve exhausted their curiosity, you can ask them to sum up what they’ve learned. This will help make sure your message was received the way you intended.
It’s also important to reassure your child that they themselves are safe and secure. Learning that some people, even kids, don’t have a place to live or a mommy or daddy to take care of them can be very upsetting for a young child. An extra bit of reassurance from you can make all the difference!
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