Helping Children Understand Poverty and How to Help Those Around Them

Parenting

If you live in a larger city, there is a good chance that at some point, you’ve stopped at a red light and tried your hardest to ignore the homeless man or woman begging for money. If you are a parent too, there is an even better chance you’ve silently pleaded that your child doesn’t look up or begin asking endless questions you don’t know how to answer.

As parents we can be uncomfortable having conversations about social class or poverty or injustices in the world with our children. However, if you desire for your children to be empathetic and to not live in a bubble, then having discussions about these topics are a necessary step to broaden their horizons. We found these tips from CUESI Lab—Lindsey Nenadal, Ph.D., Katherine Griffin, Ph.D., Taylor Hazelbaker, M.A., and Kristina Brittenham, J.D. to be very helpful.

  • Don’t ignore class, but mind your words. Don’t ignore or “shush” your child’s observations. Use their curiosity to start a conversation. Ask probing questions to assess their understanding—and misunderstanding. Instead of saying “a homeless/poor person,” use phrases like “a person who is homeless” and “people living in poverty.” This reinforces that poverty and homelessness do not define a person, but describe their current circumstances. Use terms such as “none, some, most, all” (e.g., “some people who live in poverty don’t have a home and some people in poverty do”) to combat group stereotypes and reinforce within group heterogeneity.
  • Encourage concern, compassion, and action instead of pity. Empathyand perspective-taking skills are hallmarks of childhood. Harness these skills to help children connect, understand, and relate to the experiences of a child or family struggling economically, even if their own family is economically secure.
  • Talk about poverty and homelessness as situational, not individualistic. Adults and children often attribute poverty to individual characteristics (e.g., not working hard, not trying, or not spending money wisely). Discuss structural dimensions of poverty, such as low-wages, housing costs, and discrimination with your child.

Ways to engage in your local community:

  • Communities typically have organizations to help individuals and families in need that often allow families to volunteer or donate goods. Talk to children before and after engaging in this activity. Use some of the tips shared above and encourage your child to ask questions.
  •  Brainstorm ideas for other ways that they (and others) can help, and talk about different types of structural support (e.g., government benefits) that people may receive. Plan to volunteer regularly, as regular contact and exposure are important for reducing stigma and breaking down stereotypes.

Children’s books:

    • Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena
    • Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, by DyAnne Disalvo-Ryan
    • A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams

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