I want to feel upbeat today. Thanksgiving is a blink away, and it’s time to conjure up some gratitude. I do have so much for which I am grateful. And believe me, I am front and center in expressing it to whomever will listen.
But today it’s hard to feel that way. My day started with article after article in the LA Times about the crisis of homelessness in my city. Then I went for a walk on this fall day in November, and it is too hot for me to be out exercising, 87 degrees. So, I will add the crisis of climate change to my list. Ugh.
The key to feeling better is doing something, being proactive. The best way for me to do something is to help parents. So, here is a rebirth of a blog I wrote 4 years ago addressing how to talk to kids, young and old, about homelessness. It is even more relevant today.
More than ever I am being asked how to address the countless homeless people and encampments that are blanketing our city. This issue is unavoidable and one that must be addressed.
Whether it is someone in the street asking each car for money, someone pushing a cart overflowing with possessions, a person forlornly propped up against a building, or a block long encampment of homeless people’s tents, homelessness is everywhere and obvious in our city. We cannot turn a blind eye. This problem belongs to all of us.
The exponential growth of homelessness has created a different look to our city. Children notice anything that is different (as do we all, frankly). They work hard to understand and make sense of the world they encounter. As they grow and mature, more of the world comes into focus and is scrutinized. An underpass lined with tents is different from street on which they live.. You children will notice. And they will ask about it, if they haven’t already.
It is important to understand that homelessness is not a “loaded” issue for the child…yet. Her questions about a homeless person usually stem from genuine curiosity. That person doesn’t fall into any of the categories of people with whom she is familiar. She is not passing judgment; she is wondering. The young child’s initial impression is heavily influenced by the parent’s affect, actions, and responses to her questions. And it is by observation of the parent that the child first gets her cues about how to react and feel. So, as you answer your child’s questions, be aware of the attitude you may be projecting. This is a chance to cultivate empathy and not fear or worse, disgust.
Sometimes we encounter an obviously homeless person who is behaving strangely or erratically and likely, has a mental disorder or emotional problems. When there is an unpleasant odor or an obvious lack of physical hygiene, there are more questions. Why does she look like that? Why is he acting like that? Is he dangerous? Are we safe? The child’s curiosity (distaste, and often fear) intensify.
Explaining mental illness is both tricky and important. But it is important that in answering your child’s questions you not combine the two problems: homelessness and mental illness. While it may be that a homeless person, in reality, has a mental disorder, the two issues are not necessarily related.
Homelessness, when someone doesn’t have a home—a place to sleep, for meals, and in which to keep his belongings—can be unsettling and even frightening to a child. Younger children will wonder where the person’s family is, why there is no one to help him. Many young children go to a place of worry about themselves and their family–Do we have enough money? Will we ever not have a home?
While a parent needs to answer the child’s questions honestly, I believe it is also important that our answers show compassion. Homelessness is not a crime; it is a severe problem. In your answers and attitude, you will be modeling the empathy on which our society depends.
Talking with young children, ages 2 to 7 years.
1. Wait for your child to bring it up. There is no need for you to point out the homeless person.
2. When asked, give a simple answer to the child’s question. That person has no home. He is homeless. A person who is homeless has no place to sleep, to eat, to go to the bathroom, to shower and keep himself clean, or to keep his belongings.
3. When the child asks “Why?” Some people don’t have enough money to pay for a house or a place to live.
For grown-ups, having a home costs money. A homeless person is an adult who doesn’t have the money he needs to own a house or rent an apartment or to buy food.
Usually the homeless person doesn’t have or know people who can help him.
4. Mind your affect. Children of all ages take their cues about how they should feel from their parents. They absorb your tone, your attitude, and your feelings from the way you respond, both verbally and non-verbally.
5. Keep it simple. Unless the child asks why a person is behaving strangely, there is no need to bring up mental illness.
6. Mental Illness. If your child asks why he is acting “like that,” you might say, That person’s brain is not working the way it is supposed to. Just like people have problems with their bodies, sometimes a person has a problem with his brain. (It is important, for the sake of the child, to add that it is not common to have those kinds of problems. Most people do not have mental illness.)
7. Talk about ways people can help. Young children operate in the concrete. While you may want to donate money, they will better understand donating real items—toys, food, self-care provisions to give to a non-profit. You can take advantage of the many family activities that are focused are caring, sharing, and giving: Adopting a family at the holiday time; hosting a donation drive; collecting donations at your holiday events. Consider everyone doing cleanout of toys, clothing, books to donate. And don’t be discouraged if your child is not particularly generous YET. Giving and sharing is a habit to be cultivated. Accept his donation regardless of its size. Make sure he sees you modeling the action.
8 Help your child to know about all the ways that people are trying to help. The topic of homelessness may generate new found fears and worries in the young child. Assure her that there are many organizations who are working hard take care of people in need. Be sure to let her know that she is safe and that her family is well cared for.
Talking with older children, ages 8 to 12 years.
1. Find out what your child already understands about homelessness and poverty. When you child brings up the topic, ask her, “What is your understanding about homelessness? What is your idea about how someone might become homeless” and what it might mean for her?
2. Correct any misinformation your child has.
3. Mind your affect. Children of all ages take their cues from you about how they should feel. They absorb your tone, your attitude, and your feelings from the way you respond, both verbally and non-verbally. Your children are watching you ALL the time.
4. When your older child asks Why? Explore this question by asking your child why he thinks someone might become homeless, sharing that there is no one reason. This will be an ongoing conversation.
Caveat: Do not use homelessness as an example of what could happen to the child if…
…he doesn’t stay in school
…he doesn’t go to college
…he doesn’t get a good job
…he uses drugs, etc…
Fear mongering is never useful.
Rather, help your child to understand that there are thing he can do that will put him in a position to lead the life he hopes to live.
5. Answer all of his questions. No question should be avoided, as each is meaningful and important. You child needs to know that you will always answer him openly and honestly. And, if you don’t know an answer, you can say so. Then you can discuss where you might find the answer.
6. Discuss mental illness, if the opportunity arises. The older child is available to understand the limitations of mental illness. S/he is also capable of understanding some of the causes, including, drugs, heredity, trauma, and environmental influences.
7. Always come from a place of empathy. Discuss with your child how life must be for the homeless person. Express your own feelings of empathy and the desire to help these people.
8. Discuss ways for your child to be proactive. There are countless ways for children to take action and feel like they are doing something. Whether through regular clean-outs and sharing or creating Lemonade Stands to earn money to donate, there are many opportunities for kids to help. There are many organizations dedicated to helping the homeless. Volunteering as a family is a meaningful habit to create, too.
Gratitude for all our blessings is, hopefully, building as Thanksgiving nears. Families are creating paper chain expressions of gratitude to decorate their tables. Others will share feelings of gratitude as the turkey is passed. These feelings are all the more meaningful when we have shared with our children how grateful we are to have places to hang our hats, tables at which to gather, family to love….and a plan to help others who are not so fortunate.