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Explaining Poverty to Young children

It can be difficult to explain some of the darker sides of real life to your children.  Nobody wants to tell their children about crime, poverty, greed, addictions, and other unfortunate aspects of our (or any other) culture.   However, we need to prepare our children for the real life that they will encounter as adults, so we must begin preparing them, gradually, from their early years.  In this blog, we will focus on explaining poverty to young children.

Toddlers are old enough to be aware of the people around them and the things that they have or do not have.  As parents, we need to explain to our toddlers the basics of poverty and teach empathy.  For example, if one of the children in your toddler’s Sunday school class is impoverished, the conversation may go as follows:

Toddler:  Jamie wears icky clothes.

You:  What do you mean by “icky”?

Toddler:  They’re dirty and nobody wears clothes like Jamie has.

You:  I see.  We know Jamie’s parents, right?

Toddler:  Yes.

You:  We know that Jamie’s house is small, he doesn’t have a lot of toys, and his family doesn’t have a car.  That’s because Jamie’s family doesn’t have a lot of money.  Remember when Jamie’s mom died a few years ago?

Toddler:  Yes.

You:  Now Jamie’s dad is working to support Jamie and his brothers and sisters, but it’s really hard when he’s doing it without Jamie’s mom.  Do you think there is anything we can do to help Jamie and his family?

Toddler:  Should I give him some of my toys and clothes?

You:  Do you think Jamie would be embarrassed?  We don’t want Jamie to feel pitied; we just want Jamie to feel loved.  Do you remember when we talked about pity?

Toddler:  Yes.

You:  Ok.  So, how can we best help Jamie and his family without making them feel badly about receiving the help?

As your child ages, he will prompt you for additional information about poverty.  Do not provide more information that your child is ready to absorb.  Your child will guide you based on the conversations he initiates.

Grade schooler:  Jamie got in trouble today at school.  He stole another kid’s coat.

You:  Why do you think Jamie did that?

Grade schooler:  I don’t know.  He was cold, I guess.

You:  Did Jamie wear a coat to school today?

Grade schooler:  Yes.  It was like my rain coat.

You:  Ok, so what do you think about that?

Grade schooler:  I don’t think Jamie has a winter coat, so I think he stole one because he was cold.

You:  Stealing is always wrong.  You know that.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel badly for why Jamie did what he did.  How can we best help Jamie without making him feel badly about receiving that help?

Your child’s understanding of poverty and its impact will continue to develop as he ages.

As you can see, the foregoing examples show how you are giving more and more detail about poverty to your child as he ages.  His ability to observe poverty, understand the depth of its impact, and cope with the information he gleans . . . all will increase as he ages.  Also in the foregoing examples, you are not only teaching your child about poverty, but about empathy as well.  Not only do you want your child to understand the elements of real life that he will encounter as an adult, you want him to be able to handle those elements of real life as constructively as possible.  You want your child to help make this world a better place to live.  By explaining poverty to your child as indicated above, you and your child are well on your way.

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