Every time Brendan and I go to our favorite library, we discuss the number of tents and individuals without homes who depend on the city’s services. He often wants to bring them a slice of pizza, since he saw once that a local mission passed out food around the crowd gathered at the entrance. “Mama, where do they get food?” he asked as we shuttled inside to drop off our library books. Seattle has a high population of houseless people, with the latest census numbers showing 11,000 in the metro area alone. So high, in fact, that the greater Seattle region has the third-largest population of houseless people, behind New York and Los Angeles. There are efforts to track the latest trends to understand numbers, locations, and ages.
We could get into the varied reasons why this is the case, including astronomical gentrification and subsequent spikes in the cost of living throughout the metro area, a lack of comprehensive mental health programs (or even the lack of standard universal healthcare in our country), and more. Those are all legitimate conversations to be had, but the one I’m most interested in is how we talk about this with our kids.
There is a natural, healthy reservedness we want our kids to have of strangers. I remember the “don’t talk to strangers” pep talk I received in the mid-1980s. I’d love Brendan to be polite and kind, yet not too trusting of everyone he meets. He has a big heart, so this is especially hard. With this, though, we must thread a delicate needle of teaching compassion and kindness, while enforcing ‘stranger danger.’
Children aged five to eight years-old tend to transition developmentally from being ‘me-centered’ to seeing themselves as part of a community. Around these ages, they may begin asking questions about problems they see, and even wanting to get involved, says Susan Linn, a child psychologist at Harvard Medical School when interviewed by BabyCenter on the subject. I’ve noticed this with Brendan recently as he notices every small detail he hears on the news. Nothing escapes this kid.
Language is an important first step. We know kids are emotional sponges – observing and soaking up every idea, opinion, and word we use (sometimes for the worse). When speaking to Brendan about houseless people, I tend to use that term over ‘homeless.’ Increasingly, activists are moving away from ‘homeless’ as the term of choice, opting instead for ‘houseless people,’ ‘someone who is unhoused,’ or ‘person experiencing houselessness.’ The goal is to center the person – the humanity – in the narrative, to help people remember that despite cruel circumstances, every human is entitled to dignity.
The next intention I set with my son is attitude. When we come across a person experiencing homelessness, I tend to feel annoyed at first – it is an interaction I’d usually hope to avoid. Looking inequality in the eye is uncomfortable, but it’s not how I’d want someone to react if I was just asking for help. Instead, we talk about how we show kindness while moving about our way. It shows that everyone is worthy of respect, something that we’re trying to teach him every day.
If Brendan asks, I wait for an appropriate (read: out of earshot) time to explain my action or inaction to him. ‘Why did you give that man money, mama?’ or ‘Why didn’t we help that person?’ In an attempt to bring Brendan into the conversation, research suggests that we offer age-appropriate explanations. ‘This time I didn’t have cash, sweetheart, but when we get home, we can donate to a program that helps people like him.’ I’m finding myself doing a lot of explaining and revising my explanation these days – I just often don’t get the words just right. Following up that statement with action is where things get tricky! Life gets in the way. But I try to take the time to pull up a chair for my son to talk it through or find ways that we can help, reinforcing for him that my words aren’t empty and our hearts should always be kind.
The trick in all of this: I’m still learning. I feel like every day I’m faced with a new scenario to explain to this curious kiddo. I’m so grateful that he’s inquisitive, and yet, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics to put myself in my five-year-old’s shoes to explain things in ways he’ll understand. Sometimes it helps me see the complexity of our lives even clearer.
While I’m still learning as I go (and prep for kid #2), I’ve found some helpful resources that have shed some light to the conversation:
- Search Homeless Services, based in Houston, Texas, offers this guide with sample scripts by age group to help you talk to your kids and take action.
- On Our Street: Our First Talk about Poverty by Dr. Jillian Roberts, is a gentle nonfiction introduction to social issues aimed at children aged 5-9.
- Flyest Fables is a podcast for kids aged 7-12, offering an interconnected anthology that explores a variety of characters, identities, and experiences, including houselessness.
So, when Brendan asked about passing out pizza during our last library visit, we made a plan instead to donate to the Chief Seattle Club, a decades-old day center for local shelterless and low-income Indigenous people. He’s learning the value of sharing what we have with those who need it. I’m learning more about how to confront my own bias and help as well. No one said this parenting ride would be easy, but I’m learning a lot along the way.