How to talk to kids about Homelessness

by Rebekah Heeg, CDC Curriculum Coordinator

In preparation for the arrival of Tent City 3 in December, this letter was sent to CDC parents.

While questions about poverty, equity, and homelessness are already common for many children, we expect that many of the children we serve at the Phinney Ridge CDC will have extra questions and curiosities while our community hosts Tent City 3.  I’m including links below to some articles about addressing children’s questions respectfully, and working to avoid the creation of bias or prejudice in our answers about topics which we might find difficult or uncomfortable. I will be ordering some children’s books this week to improve our library and provide diverse representations and developmentally appropriate stories about people experiencing homelessness.

I wanted to highlight a couple of important concepts found in the articles below and that we use extensively in our anti-bias practices here at school:

Answering children’s questions

Most of these conversations should be initiated by the child and their interest. If they aren’t asking about something, it’s likely because they don’t feel ready to discuss it yet. Lack of questions isn’t a bad sign; it usually indicates that a child is still making observations and formulating thoughts on their own. They likely don’t feel ready for adult input at this time. A huge challenge in this phase is controlling the impulse to over-explain when questions finally do come. As adults we often over-analyze children’s questions and provide far more information than they were seeking.

Honesty about what we don’t know

While some questions are easy to answer (“What are they doing?” “It looks like they’re sleeping”) other questions may be impossible for us to know the answer to such as, “Why are they sleeping on the sidewalk?”. The truth is that unless we know this person well or ask them personally, we don’t know why. Pat answers to these questions are common: “they don’t have a home”, “they made poor choices”, “they have nowhere else to go” etc. and sometimes feel easiest. The problem with these types of answers

is that they encourage assumptions and biased opinions based on very little information about the person in question. Instead, we work hard to address questions we don’t know the answers to with honesty: “I don’t know why they’re sleeping on the sidewalk”.

Avoiding generalizations and stereotyping

Another common reflex for us as adults is to simplify the world in unrealistic ways when explaining things to children. This can be a result of our own unexamined biases, or of an attempt to answer a question in a simple way without allowing space for the complexity of the world we live in. One of my favorite ways of avoiding this in my own teaching practice is to add the word, “sometimes” when I’m answering children’s questions. “Sometimes people who don’t have homes of their own sleep on the sidewalk”, “some people who don’t have other places to stay can live in Tent City”, “We’re sharing our food today because sometimes other people don’t have enough to eat” etc. These statements are less absolute, open the door for children’s further thoughts, and help build a framework for addressing homelessness and poverty as experiences, rather than the totality of a person’s identity.

Examining our own bias

A final essential part of addressing these topics with children is to make an effort to examine our own biases as well – both in how we answer questions and how we behave during interactions out in the world. Children are keen observers and pick up quickly on our discomfort and feelings towards others. As we move through the world children notice when we make efforts to avoid interacting with others and make connections on why we might have done so.

Resources

https://www.parentmap.com/article/how-talk-kids-homeless-seattle

https://wellspringfs.org/blog/14-ways-effectively-explain-homelessness-and-poverty-your-child

Please feel free to reach out to CDC staff with your questions and thoughts on these articles, or topics that come up which you are having extra difficulty or particular joy in exploring with your children.