We received this question from a parent, and provided the following answer.  

Question: Our family was recently approached on the street by a homeless man asking for money to feed himself and his family. Our 6-year-old daughter was clearly upset, asking us how old his children were and if we could give him money. My 8-year-old son was quiet, but listening. What is the best way to handle this situation?

Answer: Helping children with the tragic sides of life is difficult. To provide ways to think about this, we need to consider both the anxieties as well as the moral issues that homelessness might raise within a child.

Why this may cause anxiety

All children deal with thoughts about whether their personal world is safe, including whether parents will provide a roof and food. When children have been raised in protected, loving environments, and spared from unfortunate events such as significant physical illness in themselves or disruptions in family stability, they usually put these anxieties to rest before entering grade school. However, these anxieties don't completely leave. Therefore, all children will likely respond to seeing a homeless person by worrying about themselves. Most children are able to put these worries aside but may be agitated or anxious without recognizing the actual source of their discomfort.

The moral dimension

Everyone struggles with the moral issues surrounding homelessness. Although adults have different opinions, it's probably fair to say that all agree we have some obligation to provide for or empower the less fortunate. Homelessness challenges parents to help children consider that obligation.

For some families, but not others, the possible reasons for homelessness are relevant to their obligations. There is also the question of society's obligation, and how a parent's understanding of these obligations translates into the political views they model for their children. The single situation you encountered engages broad moral questions about the role of personal responsibility, the responsibility of one human being for another, and the degree to which society has a role in providing for the unfortunate.

What you can say and do

Your children will benefit from you paying attention to their reactions. We recommend you create opportunities to discuss the situation. Elicit your children's thoughts and questions and provide the most comforting information you can without offering false reassurances.

For example, you can say there are places where families without homes can obtain food and shelter, and that you don't know why this family is homeless and poor, but you can provide some of the possible reasons it could have happened. These explanations would indirectly address your child's worries about themselves because the implication will be that your family doesn't have these problems.

You can be more direct if you sense it is necessary, adding that Daddy and/or Mommy will always be able to provide what your family needs, or perhaps that others in your extended family would help if your immediate family ever needed assistance.

Even if you can't say with 100 percent certainty that you are immune to the possibility of homelessness, it's better to reassure young children rather than attempt to explain every remote possibility.

You can also discuss the ethical issues involved in this situation, although there is no one-size-fits-all-families answer. Some parents believe that they and society have a direct obligation to help a homeless person. In this circumstance, you can guide your children in a discussion about how you might balance your resources and time to attend to a homeless person's needs and wants. You can talk about the ways your family provides for others in specific acts of compassion or how your views of the role of society to support the underprivileged influences your political choices and support, particularly with your older child who might begin to understand these issues.

You can provide some concrete ways your family can directly help homeless people, perhaps by contributing to a shelter or offering food. You could put together items in a brown lunch bag to have in the car to give out. The bag could include nonperishable foods such as granola bars, water and a toothbrush. Assembling the bags with children gives them the opportunity to think about what to include and why.

These options provide roadmaps for children who may also be struggling with a natural, personal reaction of guilt over their own relative good fortune.

Some parents understand helping the underprivileged in a different way. They believe that people are homeless because of their own poor choices, and that we undermine the central practical and moral importance of living with the consequences of actions if we provide excessive support for homeless individuals. From this point of view, direct or excessive societal support to homeless individuals might even tend to reduce their incentive to take positive action on their behalf. Parents with this ethical system would best explain their values by emphasizing that their belief about the best way to help homeless people is to avoid offering too much help because if we do, they may not have the motivation to change their circumstances.

We admire your concern to help your children with this difficult situation. As you help them, you also have an opportunity to reflect and grow. 

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