GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) – How do we talk to our kids about homelessness? I’m not a parent yet, but let me just say… this question scares me.
Recently, my mom and my 5-year-old nephew came to visit me at work in downtown Grand Rapids. On their way to visit, they saw a panhandler. My nephew asked my mom, “Are we going to that place”? He thought the panhandler was promoting a special event with his sharpie scribbled cardboard sign. Kids say the darndest things don’t they? God bless mom. She had to think on her feet and explain that the panhandler was out there – not to promote an event – but to ask for money. My nephew’s innocent curiosity led to an in-depth discussion about jobs and homelessness. I’m sure mom was relieved when that car ride was over.
Kids aren’t always articulate, but they are certainly intuitive. When they see someone on the street, they know it’s not right, but of course they can’t understand the complexities of affordable housing, addiction and mental illness. While mom did her best to lovingly educate my nephew about the man with the cardboard sign, she admitted that she could have used some tips.
Speak to their level of experience
Homelessness and poverty is too complicated for most adults to understand. Kids don’t need all the details, but help them understand that there are many reasons why someone is without a home. A conversation might go something like this:
Kid: What is that person doing with a sign?
You: It looks like he’s asking for people to give him money.
Kid: Why is he asking for money?
You: I’m not sure. He may need money for food or groceries or to help pay for his house.
Kid: Why doesn’t he go to work like mommy and daddy?
You: I don’t know. He may be sick or maybe doesn’t know how to work, or lost his family and he is sad. There are many reasons why someone needs money.
Kid: Can we help him?
You: Giving someone money doesn’t always help them in the way that they need. There are organizations that people can go to get help if they need a home. Let’s plan to volunteer at a place that helps people who are homeless. We can also collect clothing and money and donate it. Maybe you want to share some of your allowance for people who don’t have as much as you do?
Don’t make assumptions.
There are many reasons why people are homeless or choose to panhandle. Each story is different. We have the choice to perpetuate stereotypes with our kids, or show empathy. By assuming that someone who is homeless is addicted, lazy or crazy, we are passing the stigma to the next generation.
We don’t have to know all the answers. Kids respect our honesty. Use this opportunity to ask them what they are feeling.
Sympathy and empathy are very different. We should encourage dialogue and ask our kids what they think the homeless person is thinking or feeling when they don’t have a home. Ask: “what do you feel when you see that person sleeping on the street”?
Be an example, take action and follow through
Empathy usually leads to a gut feeling that “we have to do something.” Usually around the age of 5, kids are starting to think about others and how to help solve problems. It’s not just our words that demonstrate our faith and our values; it’s our tone, body language and actions. Our children will notice if we ignore those who are suffering. They take cues from something as simple as eye contact. Maybe stopping to help someone on the street isn’t the right time to address the issue, but let’s talk to our kids about meaningful ways to help in a safe and welcoming environment.
Here are just a few ways kids in West Michigan have helped:
Several kids dropped off frozen turkeys at this MTM event around Thanksgiving. The turkeys were given out to families in need of a meal during the holiday season.
Hannah collected money from her classmates and family members to give to Mel Trotter Ministries to help.
Write an encouraging card
This little girl saw a homeless person on the street and wanted to help. Her parents encouraged her to write him a card and bring it to Mel Trotter Ministries.
Addy partnered with a local business during the Christmas season to collect blankets for the individuals and families living at MTM.
Many families serve meals at the Mission or they volunteer together at the Thanksgiving Community Meal at DeVos Place.
Embrace the awkwardness
This topic is likely to come up at some point. The best thing we can do is keep an open mind and a non-judgmental spirit. Let kids know how blessed they are to have a home and a family that loves them. Most importantly, show them that no matter how old they are, they can make a difference!
Get more information about how to get your family involved at www.meltrotter.org