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Unfortunately, your child is going to encounter poverty and homelessness. Whether it is the individual on the street corner asking for help, or the child in their class, each exposure will probably initiate questions. It is important to deal with your child’s observations and the resulting curiosity appropriately to make sure your child has a healthy perception of the world around them.

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The increase in the number of children living in poverty means that your child probably has more than one classmate whose appearance and academic performance sets them apart from their peers. Some of the visible signs of homelessness and poverty are:

  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Worn, dirty, mismatched, or ill-fitting clothing
  • Shyness, aggression, or unfriendliness
  • Hesitancy to make friends

Additionally, children of poverty often have academic and behavioral problems that set them apart:

  • Delay in language development and reading development
  • Irregular attendance
  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Incomplete or missing assignments and homework

Children become aware of differences in economic and social status at a very early age. They begin to notice that some children have more than they do and some have less. You can help your children control the impact homelessness and poverty have on their lives at this early age and prepare for later encounters – at around age 11 – when they can begin considering the causes and some solutions to poverty and homelessness. Take the following actions:

  • Explain your own responses and reactions to homelessness.

When our children were young, their father was placed in charge of the benevolence program at our church. Instead of simply giving people who needed help money, we would fill their car with gas, feed them a meal – often eating with them – and put them in touch with community programs that would provide shelter and occupational training. We met many interesting people and my children learned that life has its ups and downs and that our responsibility is to assist others with loving concern – lessons that have stayed with them. Currently my daughter is temporarily housing two young children for couple struggling financially and trying to find a permanent home. One of my sons is constantly providing for others. Even when he was jobless and lost his house, if he had food to eat, he would share with others. If you choose not to help someone, explain why. Sometimes financial help perpetuates a bad situation. You need to share your insights with your children, so that they can also be able to discern real need from situations where someone is simply taking advantage of their kindness.

  • Talk about poverty and homelessness.

There are many news stories and TV reports these days that can provide a jumpstart for a conversation. The person standing on the street corner asking for help can also illicit questions and conversation. Watch out for stereotyping and negative attitudes. Explain that many families lose jobs, have illness, or other circumstances that plunge them into poverty. Teach your children an attitude of respect for others, no matter what their income or occupation.

  • Take action with your children.

Children naturally have tender hearts and one of their first reactions when faced with homelessness is a desire to help. Participating in food and clothing drives provides tangible evidence of caring for small children. Older children may wish to become more personally involved, perhaps even volunteering at soup kitchen, thrift shop, or homeless shelter. My daughter occasionally purges her girls’ room and they take the toys and clothes they no longer need to a local thrift shop that provides help for a battered women’s shelter.

Your children cannot avoid knowing about some of the less enjoyable aspects of life. However the impact of homelessness on your child does not need to be negative. Through honest communication and involvement, you can help your child become a caring, empathetic individual who attempts to help those around them who have less than they do in responsible and safe ways.

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