Helping Your Children Understand Poverty
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If you’ve tracked your investments over the last few years, you’ve enjoyed the bull market growth since the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
The housing market has recovered in many areas, salaries are growing again, and some businesses are even handing out bonuses.
People have become more focused on wiping out debt and growing their net worth. They better understand financial “tough times” and are more prepared for the next downturn.
Consumer spending is up, and jobless claims are at an all-time low. People are enjoying life and envisioning brighter financial futures.
It would be a mistake to think everyone sees through those rose-colored glasses though. As some people’s portfolios grew by double digits, others saw no significant pay increase – let alone investment growth.
Many people actually sunk deeper into debt and didn’t ride the “wave” of fiscal recovery this decade.
More to the Economic Story
In reality, wealth gaps between upper-income families and those in middle or lower-income families are at the highest levels recorded. And the differences in the lives of children living in families of disparate incomes have grown too.
Some kids grow up in beautiful homes, take nice vacations, participate in extracurricular activities, have access to all kinds of technology, and other support such as tutors.
Others walk home from school through crime-ridden neighborhoods to homes where they may have little food and no access to technology or the internet to do homework.
There are undoubtedly many children whose lives fall in between these two ends of the financial continuum.
We need to remember parents love their children, no matter their financial situation.
It may seem like a lack of love or caring, but parents who are financially challenged have less time and fewer resources to invest in their kids.
The kids are then less prepared for school and work. And there can be long-term impacts on health and learning, which can contribute to generational poverty.
How Big of a Problem is Poverty?
Based on 2016 U.S.Census Bureau data, the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis reported that 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty.
But since this is census data, that number didn’t even include many homeless or incarcerated people. And 18.5 million of those people live in deep poverty.
Deep poverty for a family of four with two children was defined as earning less than $12,169.50 in 2016. Black or Hispanic people were most likely to be in deep poverty. And 8.2 percent of all children lived in deep poverty that year.
Why Would I Want My Kids Understand Poverty?
Helping children understand different social classes and the struggles of those in poverty helps them develop empathy.
It’s important for children to understand families are different. Where they live, what they own, and what they value differs too.
Natural conversations about people who have less can take place as children become less egocentric and begin considering the needs of others. If you’ve taken a psychology class, you might remember this would be between the ages of 7-11 as kids enter Piaget’s concrete operational stage.
Drawbacks to Teaching Kids About Poverty
Teaching kids about poverty can be challenging. Children as young as 5 are introduced to different socio-economic levels at school.
They may hear from another child that they are moving because their parents don’t have enough money to pay the rent. And they may learn kids eat free breakfast and lunch at school because there's not enough money at home to pay for food.
Maybe you drive or walk past homeless people who are asking for money each day.
Even young children can sense people are not having their basic needs met. They may even begin to worry the same thing could happen to them.
It’s important we help teach children about poverty without confusing them or creating anxiety about this complex topic. Here are some ways you can talk to kids about poverty without creating unnecessary fear or worry.
Explaining Poverty Without Upsetting your Children
It’s important to find a balance in talking about the challenges people in poverty face, without sharing some of the potentially distressing details.
Before you talk to your kids about poverty, consider their age, what they have been exposed to, and their level of social and emotional development.
Here are six things to consider as you begin thinking about this challenging topic.
Sooner or later, financial differences between families or conversations about “poor” people will happen. It’s important to know your values may be communicated to your child in these discussions or interactions.
If you place blame on people or ignore their situation, you may be sending messages to your child that people are “bad” or you don’t care that others may be in need.
Think about the message you want to share and about how involved you want to be.
Tell your child about the things you do to help others. What you can do as a family to support those in need. And what your limits are in being able to help people.
Remember to inform them there are other people helping and many community organizations help struggling people too.
Keep It In Context
To help your child understand poverty, bring up the topic naturally. If you’re in the car and see a panhandler with a sign asking for money, talk to your child about the situation while you are in the car.
Ask if they noticed the person and if they understand why they might be asking for money. This will allow you to clear up any misconceptions your child may have.
Books like Yardsticks by Chip Wood, describe common developmental traits of children at different ages.
Understanding more about your child’s level of development will help you decide the type and amount of conversation that would be most helpful in terms of discussing topics like hunger, poverty, and social class differences.
One thing to consider is kids may quickly categorize people into groups based on wealth.
They may think about people as “poor” or “rich” and compare them to one another and themselves. They even make assumptions about people’s traits based on those categories.
A 2012 study reported first-graders think of wealthy individuals as more competent than poor individuals.
Children may relate positive traits (academic, social, and emotional) to those who have more. If they begin to think of people in different socio-economic classes as being fundamentally different from them, they may form prejudices about that group.
Acknowledge their feelings
Your child may be upset to learn there are people who don’t have homes. Or who go hungry each day. They may cry or be angry about a friend at school who has to move because of eviction from their apartment.
Your child is expressing empathy, and it is important to recognize and nurture those feelings. This is also a time to share a message of hope.
You can begin discussing the importance of taking responsibility to help others and ways they can do that even as a child.
Help them take action
You can’t pay a family’s rent each month to keep your child’s friend in school and giving homeless people money each day isn’t the answer to teaching your child about poverty.
One thing you can do is teach your kids about different charities and about how donations help those in need.
If you’ve taught your kids about money and they have an amount of money set aside to give, this is a great time to help your child decide how they would like to help.
At the holidays, you may see “giving trees” where you can choose a tag, and your child can use the money they saved to shop for a present for those in need.
You can also talk to your children about charities like the United Way, Salvation Army, Feeding America, or Habitat for Humanity to name just a few.
Showing your child a variety of charities will help them understand the different challenges individuals face.
And how people come together to try to help those who are less fortunate. This also helps children develop humility and a grateful attitude about what they have.
You may also want to show your child that donating time, in addition to financial resources is another way to help people.
Kids will quickly learn service, caring, and kindness can make a big difference to those in financial need.
The Poverty Topic Won’t Go Away
As your children get older, revisit this topic and discuss it in more meaningful ways.
Continue to work to find a balance between helping build empathy, while not making kids feel sorry for what they have. And talk to your child about bullying.
Explain how children in poverty can be targets of kids seeking power at school.
If you are looking for more resources to learn about poverty and how to talk to your kids about it, you'll find some below. Also, check with the librarian at your local library or your child’s school for additional options.
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Written by Women Who Money Cofounders Vicki Cook and Amy Blacklock.
Amy and Vicki are the coauthors of Estate Planning 101, From Avoiding Probate and Assessing Assets to Establishing Directives and Understanding Taxes, Your Essential Primer to Estate Planning, from Adams Media.