“The world is unfair”: My head-on approach to talking about homelessness with my daughter
I want my daughter to see people who are homeless as people. I don’t want her to avert her eyes, as so many adults do when confronted with the reality of homelessness.
One day, I saw my two-year-old lining up her vintage fisher price people. She orchestrated each “parent” to pick up their “child” from school and then, she moved each pair to an area that she had designated as “home.”
When the line of parents and children reached the wall, she said, “They don’t have homes,” referring to the pairs that were still waiting at school to be taken home.
“They don’t have homes?” I confirmed.
“No,” she told me, sure of herself.
At two-years-old, I didn’t avoid the conversation. Instead, I answered honestly: “That’s very sad. You know, there are people who don’t have a home and it’s not fair. Everyone needs a home where they can sleep and be warm and safe.”
As parent, I have thought a lot about what I want to tell my daughter about homelessness as she gets older. When my daughter was only six-months-old, a subway interaction with a homeless man prompted me to ask my husband:
“What would you say when our daughter asks you why there are people who are homeless?”
My husband tried to answer, using words like “sad” and “money” and explaining how someone could lose their home if they can’t pay their rent or mortgage. He was getting somewhere when he trailed off with “I don’t know.”
I later tested my mother’s and sibling’s responses. My mom went first and talked primarily about “this man’s bad luck.”
“Not the answer I was looking for,” I told her when she was done.
“OK, let me try,” my sibling chimed in, and jumped into a complex explanation including phrases like “the unequal distribution of wealth,” “urban poor,” and “oppression.”
“Your content is right-on but there is no way a two-year-old would understand that,” I replied.
My response was this:
“The world we live in is unfair. Some people have a lot more than they need—and because of that, other people don’t have enough of what they need. This man is asking for money because he doesn’t have enough of what he needs: food, a home, etc.”
Fairness is a concept that is easily accessible to young children and I want my daughter to see a world where individuals, in this case people who are homeless, are not to blame for social problems. Instead, I want my daughter to see that the goal of a community is to meet the needs of the people who are part of it. And that, in this case, our community has fallen short of meeting this man’s needs, and others like him.
I take issue with the “bad luck” response because while an “unlucky” life event such as the loss of a job, or a relationship ending, might indeed be the direct “cause” of a person’s homelessness—there is a larger social context around homelessness including discrimination in housing and employment practices that makes some people statistically much more likely than others to become homeless. A person with inherited wealth, or a person who is part of the 1%, for example, is unlikely to become homeless.
When my two-year-old daughter proclaimed homelessness on the remaining parent-child pairs, she first offered, “They sleep outside?” and then quickly added, “Here are their homes!” finding another spot on the floor that she designated as their homes with the whip of a magic wand.
On this day, my daughter created a problem, and found a solution, through the wonderful world of play. At two-years-old, she didn’t know anything about the realities of homelessness. Eventually, she will see homelessness, and it is up to me as to what she takes away from this experience.
As I have written about in a previous post, a food drive is often presented to children as a passive way of “helping others” through “charity.” When children are passive participants in a food drive, we deny them of the ability to question and uncover the systemic inequality that is inherent to the social problem of homelessness.
As parents, we can shift this paradigm of passivity by empowering our children to research, conceive, and implement their ideas for change on their own, thereby becoming active participants in their communities and world.
Just as I have in my work as a teacher with elementary-aged students, I will let my daughter’s questions guide me as I assist in her “research.” We will search for books about homelessness and perhaps we will find the book “A Chance to Shine,” by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, about a young boy and his father (who happen to be Black) who give a man who is homeless (and who happens to be White) a job. We will google statistics about homeless children and why people become homeless. We will talk about how it might feel to become homeless. We will read about revolutionary approaches to homelessness like the Housing First policy in Canada.
Through my daughter’s research, perhaps she will identify food as an immediate need that people who are homeless have and decide to organize…a food drive. The end-result of a food drive will be similar even when children are active leaders in its conception…but by empowering my daughter to be a researcher and change-maker, I can give her both the inclination and life-long skills for taking action.
This is how I will support my daughter as she grapples with a world that, indeed, is unfair.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.