My little boy asked me why his friend has been staying at a hotel for the past month. How do I address these sensitive topics, such as homelessness, with my young son?
Having complex conversations with our children is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, parts of being a parent. This is the part of parenting that enables both child and parent the opportunity to grow. Poverty and homelessness can be hard to talk about, let alone explain to a child. You want to be tactful and compassionate, and sometimes, it’s easy to assume why someone is struggling versus how to help.
Children are both observant and resilient, and as any parent knows, they want us to explain what they don’t understand. For a child who hasn’t experienced poverty, it can be difficult for them to comprehend. One day your child may ask why their classmate lives in a motel or couldn’t afford to attend the school field trip. What will you say? How will you respond?
Before you worry about what to say, I recommend starting with empathy. A child is never responsible for any wrong decision or life-changing turn of fate that happens to their parents. They are, however, affected by the consequences. Children deserve as much compassion as we can give them. Teaching our kids from an early age to be kind and understanding toward their peers, especially those struggling, will pave the way for these uncomfortable conversations.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Explain in a way that they will understand that sometimes other families do not always have the same means as they do. That doesn’t make their friend “less-than” — it just means their experience is different, and they may have fewer material belongings or are unable to do things like go to the movies or own a bike. Encouraging compassion and empathy is incredibly important during these growth years as these attitudes will affect the way they relate to their peers in the future.
- Tread lightly. Advise that they don’t draw attention to a classmate’s misfortunes. Embolden your child to speak with them one-on-one to let them know they’re here for them, in whatever capacity that may be.
- Be an anti-bully. If they see other children being mean to a peer, encourage them to speak up, tell a teacher, and promote a positive culture of helping and empathy. Being an ally means a lot of things, but at its core, it’s about being an advocate for those in need.
- Motivate your kids to give back. Whether that’s through volunteering their time, donating gently used clothes that no longer fit or toys they no longer use, the best way to have these talks with your kids is to give them a tangible solution. If your local volunteer opportunity has age restrictions, encourage your child to engage their community by hosting a neighborhood drive for food, funding or school supplies. Giving back can be so rewarding. Empower children to make small differences every day.
As a mother, it’s difficult to imagine the struggles of families experiencing homelessness. Things often taken for granted, like the ability to take my sick baby to the doctor, could be life-changing for a parent struggling to make ends meet.
I recently had to take my baby to her doctor on a weekday to care for an ongoing ear infection. I drove there in a reliable vehicle during work hours because my job allows me to have that flexibility. I am fortunate enough to have health insurance, be able to afford the co-pay and the medication she needed afterwards.
It’s situations like these where one realizes that any one of those things could be an obstacle for a parent experiencing poverty: They could have unreliable transportation, be without stable insurance, unable to afford the co-pay and medication, lose pay for taking time off — a myriad of things that feels impossible to navigate all while their child is sick.
I encourage parents to take moments to reflect on these situations and have complicated conversations with your kids. It doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Your children will grow into better adults because you had the courage to talk about these situations during their developmental years.
Change the course of your child’s future — create generous, kind adults — by having these heart-to-hearts now. You’ll thank yourself later.
Madelynn Hirneise is a mother of two girls and CEO of Families Forward, an Irvine-based nonprofit organization committed to helping Orange County families who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness.