Inspiring Compassionate Action
Outside our neighborhood supermarket, my daughter and I frequently pass a woman who has no home. She often huddles up against a fence for shelter. Sometimes she asks for money. She often doesn’t.
Though my daughter has asked about homeless people before, it is this woman, “Jenny,” who has stayed with her. She wants to know where Jenny sleeps and if Jenny will be at the store today. If Jenny is there, my daughter will place an apple and a sandwich into our shopping cart for her. I find myself buying lunch for Jenny on days when I shop without my daughter, because I know she would want me to.
Sometimes my daughter asks really difficult questions about Jenny. Why doesn’t she have a place to live? Where is her mother? Could she sleep at our house? I struggle with how to answer her – because I don’t know Jenny’s story. I don’t know how to explain, in a way that a young child can understand, the manifold reasons why people become homeless. And I’m not fully comfortable with my own truth – that I wouldn’t invite this stranger into my home.
I do use these conversations with my daughter as opportunities to explore our values. We talk about reasons that people might not have enough money for a home. We talk about illness – both mental and physical – and how that can affect someone’s life. We talk about our safety nets – the people and institutions around us that would help us if times got rough. We talk about hunger, and how people who have jobs and homes can be hungry, too.
According to Anna Constant, Chief Operating Officer at Food Lifeline and mother of 10-year-old Otis, conversations that begin early in life are key to teaching children to think about the needs of those around them.
“Try to have a lot of short, painless conversations about how different people experience life,” suggests Constant. “And help your children learn to understand these problems in a way that is relevant to their own lives. For example, in our family, it has always been important that Otis understands that hunger doesn’t always look the way you would expect. Since one in four children in Washington state experiences food insecurity, that means kids in his class are not getting enough food to eat. Those kids that have a tough time staying awake or focusing in class may be suffering the effects of missing breakfast, or dinner the night before.”
Putting a face to homelessness and poverty can be really powerful as well, according to Constant. By learning the name of the person selling Real Change newspapers outside your supermarket, or the person you encounter at the library, or the person seeking shelter at our local park, your children will be able to start understanding that social problems are tied to real, living human beings. Like my daughter, they may also be interested in helping that one specific person. This can lead them to reflect on social issues, nurture their sense of compassion, and inspire them to seek solutions to societal inequities.
Many parents worry that introducing their children to concepts like homelessness and hunger will cause unnecessary anxiety. Constant acknowledges that while some children may experience some fear around these big issues, most children can work through fearful feelings by finding ways to help.
“One strategy against fear or anxiety is to peel away the ‘unknown’ and take action,” said Constant. “Talk to your children about the fact that these are people, no different than you, me or grandma. Volunteer with them at a food bank. Help them hold a mini food drive in class. Gather spare change and donate it to a local nonprofit. Teach them that if we all help each other, the odds are better that someone can help us or someone we love if the need is there.”
For young children, Constant advises keeping the conversation simple and finding straightforward ways to channel their energy. However, as children grow older, they should be encouraged to wrestle with more complex issues. Topics like minimum wage, lack of health insurance, the cost of childcare and the nutritional deficiency of many cheap foods can be introduced and explored with older children. Such topics can serve as springboards for meaningful volunteer action or to introduce the idea of political reform.
As the weather grows colder and the holidays approach, I know my little one will be noticing and worrying about the people who are sleeping outdoors. If yours does, too, use that teachable moment to engage your children. Contact your local food bank for donation needs, collect socks and hats for your homeless neighbors and make the choice to help your children translate compassion into action.