02/05/2014 05:09 EST | Updated 04/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Having Difficult Conversations With Kids

Parents and teachers are in a constant struggle between the world around them as it exists, and the world as they would like it to be for their children.

Many of us would like our children to experience the world as a peaceful place where everyone has an opportunity to live a life that will meet all their needs and expectations. But what do we do when reality shows our children quite a different place?

If parents and teachers want their children to grow up to be fine people and citizens of the world, the kind of people who make a difference, we need to be fearless. We need to engage our children in very difficult conversations. You know what I mean, the conversations we all dread.

Here is an example of an encounter on my street corner:

A child and I are walking together down a busy city street. At the corner, we encounter a person sitting on the sidewalk, asking passersby for spare change. The child asks me why the person is sitting there asking for money and asks me to give the person some change. What am I supposed to say?

There are a number of thoughts that pass through our minds at a time like this. One is to flee so we won't have to deal with the issue. Of course, that can only work for so long. If you live in an area where your child will frequently encounter homeless people or people asking for help, you are only putting off the inevitable. If you live in an area where you do not have these encounters on a regular basis, you need to ask yourself what message your fleeing the scene will give to your children.

One of the things that I have noticed about the teachers and parents I admire is that they tend to respond to questions with other questions. In fact, if you ask these people why they do this, they usually say something like, "Do we?"

Yes, they do. In order to actually engage our children, we need to find out what it is that they already know and what are they seeking to understand. A child who has experienced homelessness is going to think about this experience quite differently from a child who does not know that there are homeless people in our communities. We need to ask.

TVO has a webpage called Civics for Kids: Difficult Conversations. Each month it will provides a new uncomfortable scenario and questions that adults can use to help them engage children in thinking critically about their communities. The questions are divided according to age appropriateness.

The following is a list of possible questions to ask if and when you and the children you care for have the same encounter.

For any age:

  • Why do you think someone might ask another person for money?
  • Would you give money to this person? Why or why not?

For 5- to 8-year-olds:

  • There are people who don't have a home to live in. Why do you think that is?
  • What do you think the person will do with the money, if we give it to him/her? Does it matter to you what the money will be used for?

For 9-year-olds and older:

  • Who do you think should make sure that people have a home and enough to eat?
  • Besides donating money, what are some other ways we can work with people in the community so that everyone has everything they need?

The last question is also the one that we all need to consider. What is our role? If we see something unsettling, can we do something about it? Democracies give us the right to complain and the lawful means to do so. As civically engaged people, we need to find ways to make a difference, and not only on our own behalf. A sign in the New York subway says, "If you see something, say something." Perhaps we should teach our children that if they see something, they should ask something.