Discussing poverty with your kids can be uncomfortable, especially if you want them to stay carefree for as long as possible. Yet, your children will already know some people have it harder than others. They know that some kids get free school dinners, and will have seen homelessness on the street. Currently, more than one in five of the UK population (22%) live in poverty; of these, 4.3 million are children, which is why talking about it is such a powerful way to instil compassion in your children. Here’s how to do it.
Related: Teaching kids how to give back
What is poverty (an explanation for kids)
“While issues like poverty can be a daunting subject to approach with kids, the current crisis provides a good opportunity to start conversations at home. Rather than shielding kids, help them to understand the wider cost of living situation, and how it affects others so they’ll be better equipped for the realities of adult life.”
Louise Hill, COO and Co-founder of GoHenry.
The best way to explain poverty to kids is to keep it simple and make it clear. For example, try saying, ‘Poverty is about not having enough money to meet basic needs like having food to eat, clothing to wear, and a house to live in.’
Once they understand that, you can start explaining it in more detail and in an age-appropriate way that doesn’t scare children, beginning with the realities of poverty that they can understand, such as:
- Not being able to turn on the heating when you are cold
- Not being able to buy a warm coat in winter
- Having to use food banks to get food to feed yourself and your family
- Having to opt for free school dinners as you can’t afford the cost of lunch
- Not being able to pay rent and so losing your house/flat
- Not being able to find a job that pays enough to live properly
- Not being able to travel anywhere as you can’t afford public transport
- Not being able to live in housing big enough for you and your family
- Not knowing where your next meal will come from
- Being hungry in the holidays as there are no free school dinners
Why is it important for kids to learn about poverty?
Talking to your kids about the realities of poverty isn't just about making them aware that they are more privileged than others. It's also a way of teaching kids compassion and empathy for others.
How to explain what can cause poverty
Younger children often want a simple explanation as to why something happens, so don’t be afraid to explain it to them by saying;
“That person is asking for money as he is hungry and needs food.”
“These people are sleeping on the street because they have nowhere else to sleep.”
If they then ask why you can say:
“Maybe that person can’t find a job, or perhaps he works but doesn’t earn enough to buy food.”
With older children you can bring in wider factors alongside the above such as the cost of living crisis, lack of work, and even bigger political issues behind poverty such as conflict, exploitation, and bad governance.
How to talk to younger children about poverty
Knowing your child’s current level of emotional development will also help guide you in what to say. The aim, whatever their age, is to find a balance between sharing the realities of poverty without making them feel overwhelmed.
Always start by asking what they know about poverty and having no money. Their answer can then guide what you talk about. Look for opportunities to bring it up naturally. For example, when the school is collecting food for the harvest festival or at Christmas, speak to your child about why you’re donating canned goods and who it will help. Or, when they say a friend doesn’t get many presents on their birthday or doesn’t have warm clothes, explain that some families may not have enough money to buy new clothes.
Don’t worry if your kids get sad when you explain these things, as this is empathy in action. It helps empower them to feel they can do something to help, whether that’s donating pocket money to charity, putting food in the donation boxes, or collecting things their classmates may want and need.
Talking to older children about poverty
Older children are more aware of poverty and already understand the concept that some people have more money than others. Teenagers, in particular, understand that low-paid jobs, unemployment, and divorce can all influence how easily people fall into hard times.
When watching soap operas or Netflix together, look for opportunities to discuss more challenging topics around not having enough money. Ask if they understand why one character has less than another or can’t access the same opportunities as a wealthier person.
When they are on TikTok, talk about some of the issues they are viewing, such as people being unable to heat their homes and others giving their pets to shelters as they can’t afford them.
Ask them why they think these things happen and fill in the gaps for them.
Tips on how to teach to your kids about poverty
1. Keep it age-appropriate
Always keep conversations age-appropriate. This will help to hold your child’s attention, and means you won’t frighten them or make them feel unsafe or unduly worried about their situation.
2. Share real-life stories
Real-life stories can help show the impact of poverty on others. Watching Comic Relief or Children in Need are good ways for your kids to understand this topic. If there are stories within your own family, too, discuss these all together. Finally, reading stories is an excellent way for children to understand the complex realities of other people’s lives. Try The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt.
3. Be honest
Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of money and answer difficult questions about what it means to have nothing. Talking honestly and openly will let your kids know they can discuss their money fears and challenges with you.
4. Inspire them to help
Talk about giving and how this helps support causes and people who have less than you. Encourage donations to food banks and charities, or drop a few coins in a collection box. This is also an excellent opportunity to discuss needs versus wants when teens discuss the new things they need.
5. Understand your own feelings
It also pays to address your feelings around poverty before you speak to your child to see if your preconceptions will affect the messages you are passing on. For example, what assumptions do you have regarding what poverty "should" look like?
6. Eliminate the stigma
There is still a lot of stigma to living in poverty, such as people being lazy or the idea that they have bought it on themselves. You can help alleviate this stigma by showing your children that everyone has hard times, which is why it’s essential to be compassionate.
7. Settle on your message
Be clear about the message you want to give your children about poverty. Is it to be grateful for what they have and to help others in need? Is it to do what you can to tackle the more significant issues around poverty, or is it to show compassion where needed? Be sure you model whatever your message is to your child.
8. Talk about the different types of poverty
Help your kids to see that there are different types of poverty. There’s extreme poverty seen in TV ads from developing countries, and the poverty we see closer to home, where people can’t feed their families or find a place to live. Both need our help.
Answers to common questions kids might ask about poverty
“Why can't we give that man money?”
Your child may ask you this if they watch you walk past someone selling The Big Issue or asking for money outside a shop. Be honest and explain that you can't always give spare cash to everyone who asks; instead, you can regularly give to charities that help.
“Why is that person sleeping on the street?”
This is a common question for young children, who find it distressing to see people sleeping outside. Again be honest; say they probably don't have work or family to help them. With older kids, explain the impact of mental health issues and addiction problems on someone's life.
“Will that happen to us?”
Despite our best efforts, kids pick up on our anxieties. Research shows almost 65% of 8-16-year-olds worry about their family finances. What helps here is to reassure your child that all is fine and that you have finances under control, giving examples of how you are being careful.
How you can set a good example for your kids
Life can be stressful, and it can be easy to ignore someone asking for money or help. While we can’t always help everyone, be sure to show empathy, and acknowledge that others have it tougher than you.
How to teach your children how to give back
Teaching your children about the power of giving helps them discover causes they care about and find out how giving can help others. It also gets them into the habit of providing help, showing compassion and empathy for others, and supporting those around them.
How GoHenry can help
Topping up your child's GoHenry prepaid kids debit card with pocket money means your child can make choices around giving. Using the app's giving feature, kids and teenagers have already donated over £425,000 to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).