Many parents ask me when — and how — to talk to their kids about poverty and homelessness, or how to find ways for children to help.
I love being asked these sorts of questions, because I believe it's never too early to start having these conversations with our kids.
When children understand that they can be active participants, empowered to improve situations for others, it builds self confidence and resilience that will be invaluable to them as they grow into secure teens and adults. Raising kids to be global citizens, teaching them values like empathy and then showing them how to put those values to work, is one of the modern-day parent's new responsibilities.
Change agency — the idea that a person can be instrumental in transformation — originates from a positive growth mindset. This is related to personal principles and values that your child will already be starting to form on their own, but you can also help to shape them through how you and your family live your lives.
When kids are intrinsically motivated and "wired for empathy," they are more readily able to channel those values into actionable outcomes. So, how can you put these strategies to work within the context of poverty in your community?
Talk about actions and outcomes
This is something that is helpful for building empathy and consideration for others, and also crucial for self-awareness, or knowing how one comes across to others. This is can be as small as things that are said that make an impact on another, to bigger actions that affect groups of people and environments.
For example, you could ask your child, "Why do you think people donate items to food banks?" or, "Why do you think adults sometimes worry about losing their job?" or, "I wonder how that homeless person felt when that lady gave him a blanket?"
Talk about privilege
Privilege is a complex concept that's quite important for kids to wrap their heads around, and acknowledge, as they grow up in an increasingly diverse and connected world. Children should be taught from an early age that sometimes, being different makes things more difficult for certain groups of people. Many times, those difficulties lead to poverty.
You can explain that these differences can sometimes be because of how people look, how much money they have/do not have, their education, how they grew up, what their religious beliefs are, etc. Unfortunately, not everyone is given the same opportunities to succeed.
Understanding the basics of what privilege means will help to mitigate against negative mindsets such as entitlement and ignorance as your child starts to observe more in the world around them.
Initiate the awareness-curiosity-caring loop
Part of raising empathetic, aware and well-informed children includes sharing stories about what's happening in our world and in our community. This does not mean you need to expose your children to all the horrors of the past and present. Start small, with concepts your child can understand and that you can explain in age-appropriate ways. Then, move on to more complex ideas as your children grow.
Discussions about poverty and homelessness can happen at a very young age. If your child observes a person who appears to be living on the street, this is a good opportunity to talk about how there are some people in our community who do not have homes, and that sometimes this is because they have not had the same opportunities as others, or maybe they are struggling with an illness.
Channel caring into action—start today
Suggest a way to help, or ask your child if they have any ideas. Then, work together to make it happen. Bring that homeless person a coffee or a hat the next time you see them, or volunteer at a shelter together. Participate as a family in events like Coldest Night of the Year, or other local initiatives. It can even be as easy as having your child choose one item each time you're at the grocery store to place in the bin for the food bank.
Practice these strategies often in your home, then watch as your little changemaker grows into an empowered, community-minded citizen.