Talking about Homelessness

We were recently asked about homelessness and thought that you might all be interested.  How do we talk about it with our kids?  What can we do?  Those sort of questions.  If you live in the Eugene/Springfield area, I’m sure your kids have noticed the scores of homeless people asking for money on the side of the roads.  It’s a big issue around here and deserves to be addressed so we’ll be doing an occasional series on homelessness.  First up in the series is how to talk about it with our kids.  At the end of this post is a list of resources used to compile this list.  These tips are meant for little kids (toddler-early elementary) but can apply to older kids as well.  

Tips for talking about homelessness

Think about your own views of homelessness and how they align with your values.  This can help prevent spur-of-the-moment judgemental comments while talking to your kids.

Be prepared to talk about mental health issues as well.  Sometimes they pique the curiosity of kids more than the fact that the person is homeless.  Decide how you will explain mental health issues with your child based on their age and understanding.

Talk about it when they’re interested.  Like so many other topics, talking to our kids about homelessness is best done when they want to.  Usually that means when they see someone while in the car or encounter them on the sidewalk downtown.  However, we parents can be prepared for whenever they are ready.  

Remember that kids are naturally curious.  When they see people on the side of the road asking for change, they will want to know more about them.  They aren’t passing judgement; they’re simply curious.

Keep it simple.  Short explanations are best so they aren’t overwhelmed by your response.  The idea that someone might not have a home is a very foreign idea to most kids.  Help them understand using basic ideas that they can relate to.  Be honest in your answer and not judgemental.  Acknowledge what you don’t know.  For example, if your kid asks why someone they see out the car window is homeless, you can say that you don’t know his/her particular circumstance but that people are often homeless because they can’t afford a house or apartment.

Express empathy and encourage your kids to be empathetic too.  I love this quote “Kids who are able to be empathetic and kind to others will develop the courage to stand up for what they believe is right”

Understand that your kids might be worried.  A home is a child’s world.  Your child might be very concerned that someone does not have a home.  Assure them that there are shelters that they can go to for a temporary home and other ways that people are helping the homeless.

Be aware of your behavior.  Your kids’ initial perception of homelessness is going to be most influenced by your behavior towards the homeless.  Make sure your verbal response and your body language reflect the same message.

Treat everyone with respect.  Act natural.  Look homeless people in the eye and smile just as you would anyone else and encourage your kids to do the same.   Remind your kids that homeless children they see are children similar in most ways to themselves and should be treated as they would want to be treated.

Remind your kids to be grateful.  This is a perfect opportunity to express gratitude for what you have, especially in the simple things like warm socks to wear and supportive friends.  Use that to fuel ideas for how to help the homeless.

Foster your kids natural tendency to help others.  Encourage their ideas on how to help homeless people.  Help them carry out some of their ideas.

Expand the conversation as your kids get older.  This isn’t going to be a “whew, glad we got that over with” kind of chat.  Be very simple as your child becomes aware of homelessness and delve deeper into the issue as your child develops.