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 some kids get free school meals. And they’ll have seen homelessness on the street.
Currently, 28% of Americans live in poverty. The national child poverty rate is 16.9% but it ranges from 8.1% to 27.7% depending on the state you live in. That’s why talking about poverty is a powerful way to instill compassion in your children.
Here’s how to do it.
What is poverty (an explanation for kids)
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 food to eat, clothing to wear, and a house to live in.’
“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.
Once your children understand the basics, you can start explaining poverty in more detail and in an age-appropriate way that doesn’t scare them. Start with the realities of poverty that they can understand, such as:
Not being able to turn on the heating when you’re cold
Not being able to buy a warm coat in winter
Having to use food banks to feed yourself and your family
Having to opt for free school meals because you can’t afford to pay
Not being able to pay your rent and losing your house/apartment
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 meals.
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 some people. It's also a way of teaching them compassion and empathy for others.
How to explain what can cause poverty
Younger children often want a simple explanation as to why something happens. Don’t be afraid to explain it to them by saying;
“That person is asking for money because he’s hungry and has no food”
or “Those 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 broader economic factors, like 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 Thanksgiving or during the holidays, 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 these things.
Don’t worry if your kids get sad when you explain. 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 classmates 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 your teens are on TikTok, talk about some of the issues they are viewing. People who can’t afford to heat their homes, for example. Or people forced to give their pets to shelters as they can no longer afford to feed and care for them.
Ask them why they think these things happen and fill in the gaps for them.
Tips on how to teach your kids about poverty
Keep it age-appropriate
Always keep conversations age-appropriate. This will help hold your child’s attention and means you won’t frighten them, or make them feel unsafe or unduly worried.
Share real-life stories
Real-life stories can help show the impact of poverty on others. Watching Comic Relief is a good way 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 Yard Sale by Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo or Migrant by Maxine Trottier and Isabelle Arsenault.
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.
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.
Understand your own feelings
It also pays to address your feelings around poverty before you speak to your child. That way you’ll work out if your preconceptions will affect the messages you are passing on. For example, what assumptions do you have about what poverty "should" look like?
Eliminate the stigma
There is still a lot of stigma to living in poverty. People being lazy, for example, or the idea they’ve brought it on themselves. You can help reduce this stigma by showing your children that everyone has hard times, which is why it’s essential to be compassionate.
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.
Talk about the different types of poverty
Help your kids 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 asking for money outside a store. 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 on someone's life.
“Will that happen to us?”
Despite our best efforts, kids pick up on our anxieties. Research shows almost 68% of kids worry about their family finances. What helps here is to reassure your child that you have your finances under control. Give them examples of how you’re being careful with your money.
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 in 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 debit card with pocket money means your child can make choices around giving. Using the app's giving feature, our GoHenry community has raised over $30K for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) in 2022, with kid donations averaging $4.8.