Let’s face it, teaching kids about homelessness sounds anything but fun. Talking about social class in general is uncomfortable but it’s important, and it’s not happening enough. According to a survey of more than 6,000 parents, conducted by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago, the majority of parents rarely discuss class or other categories of social identity with their kids.3
Teachers agree that answering these questions (or not answering them) can have a significant impact on children. 40 percent say social class has a major impact on children’s ability to succeed in life, but just 19 percent say they talk with their students about it often or sometimes. Of the six social and demographic identities included in the survey (race/ethnicity, social class, gender, country of origin, family make-up and religion), teachers are least comfortable when discussing social class.3
Not only is discussion about these issues important to a child’s individual development and success, but it also has huge implications on the world around them. Opening our children’s eyes to people’s differences leads to empathetic children. In her book “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” Michelle Borba, Ed.D. explains the importance of empathetic children:
“Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns, and deserve to be treated with dignity.”1
According to Goodstart—Australia’s largest early learning provider—children with a strong sense of empathy are also said to build security and stronger relationships with other children and educators, be better positioned for learning and more tolerant and accepting of others, have better mental health, and promote social harmony. And empathetic children turn into empathetic adults who are reported to have, among other things, higher levels of overall happiness and more satisfying relationships:
“Developing empathy is a vital building block in a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and is so valuable in being able to adapt and succeed in an ever-changing world.”4
Talking to kids about social issues, including homelessness, is hard but it doesn’t have to be. And there is a danger that not doing it can make things harder, as children begin to form their own implicit biases. Sesame Workshop argues that conversation is key:
“We sometimes are scared to talk about these things. if the adults stuffen up and say ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that loudly,’ that’s sending [children] a cue that there’s something wrong.”3
Whether you are looking for ways to teach your kids about homelessness or you’ve never given it any thought before, there is no better time than right now. Read on for our tips for navigating these new conversations.
When talking to your kids about homelessness, however much you plan it, the chances are your children will drive the conversation. Their naturally enquiring minds will wander into places that your script might not cover—that’s ok. Their curiosity is a vehicle for learning and it might help someone. Just remember that their questions come from a place of genuine intrigue, not judgment, so don’t dismiss a question because it isn’t what you were expecting or you don’t have the answers.
Depending on your children’s ages, you might not feel ready to dive into (or expect them to understand) all the complexities of homelessness and you will need to judge how much you share without frightening them, but you can still speak truthfully. Author and child development and behavior specialist, Betsy Brown Braun advises you to explain that “Homelessness is not a crime; it is a problem. In your answers and attitude, you will be modeling the empathy on which our society depends.”5
For younger children, Brown Braun advises using simple answers. It’s important to at least explain that a homeless person doesn’t always have a place to sleep, to eat, to go to the bathroom, or to keep their belongings.5 Explain that people become homeless for lots of different reasons; sometimes they are sick and can’t look after themselves properly, they might not have money, or they might not have people in their life to help them.
If you are talking to older children, Brown Braun advises you to find out what your child already understands about homelessness and poverty, correct any misinformation they have, and turn their “Why?” questions around to “Why do you think?” questions.5
Above all, and regardless of their age, explain to them that a homeless person is still a person who needs (and deserves) love and kindness just as much as anyone else.
It’s also okay not to have all the answers. If you don’t know the answer to something, tell your kids that, and commit to finding out the answers together.
In the spirit of honesty, let’s just say it: talking to kids about social issues can be scary because of what we might learn about ourselves, and how our own privilege has created biases. Yikes.
Children notice differences by themselves from as young as six months. They also form opinions about those differences at a young age – but they don’t do that by themselves, so Brown Braun advises us to “be aware of the attitude you may be projecting.”5 As you talk to your children about homelessness, note if you find yourself leaning toward anything other than compassion. If you hear yourself generalizing homeless people or labeling them with your own misconceptions, take a moment for reflection and reconsider. If you hear yourself talking about blame or choice, reconsider. When you find these biases, don’t ignore them but instead lean into them and think about what they might be rooted in. Next, commit to doing the work to unlearn.
It’s also important to be honest about the privileges your children have. To be clear, the intention is not to make children feel guilty. Toxic positivity—the idea that “things could be so much worse”—is not the aim here! Gratitude and guilt are very different things and empathy for those who have less than us is only possible when we have gratitude for what we have in the first place.
“Make a commitment as a family to either talking, doing or learning about social issues on a regular basis.”
Being the curious creatures they are, children are likely to come away from your conversations with more questions than they had before. Again, that’s okay. Taking their own time to process information and come up with questions shows critical thinking. As well as questions, encourage your kids to explore what feelings have come up since you talked. Are they scared or worried? Do they want to see and learn more?
To have the most lasting effect, turn your conversation into action and make a commitment as a family to either talking, doing or learning about social issues on a regular basis. Homeless services often rely on volunteers and advocates so find out what opportunities there are for families to get involved in your city. Use holidays and birthdays as opportunities to check in on how much “stuff” you have versus what you need, and make sure your storybook collections are diverse in representation, opinion, and subject matter.
The commitment to teaching kids about homelessness and other social issues is a big one, but with big commitment comes big results. If you still don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Sleep Out ICT is an event designed for families who want to start these conversations. Join us on Friday, April 29 from your own home as we create a fun, safe space to start these conversations. Not only that, but you’ll also practice empathy by giving up your beds for one night and raise awareness, compassion and funds for Wichita’s homeless population and HumanKind’s homeless services. For more details and to register, visit SleepOutICT.org.
HumanKind also offers campus tours to show the side of homelessness not always seen by the public, and to show them where their donation dollars go. To arrange one for your family, contact HumanKind Director of Donor Relations and Community Engagement Greer Cowley at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 316-264-93030 Ext 115. You can also visit HumanKindWichita.org/volunteer to find out about volunteer opportunities at HumanKind. We’d love to hear from you.