Written by Doctor G

Mommy, why is that person sleeping on the sidewalk?

My 4 yo daughter recently started to understand that there are people in our city who are homeless, and she will sometimes point out a person on the sidewalk and ask me if he or she is homeless. How do I respond?

Talia, in San Francisco, CA

Talia, I think our kids are best off with the truth. It is OK to give her a simple “Yes, sweetie.” Then wait to see what she says or asks.
Most preschoolers and young elementary school children will follow this up with “Why?” The harder question for sure. Here you just need to think about what your child is ready to hear. Some possible true answers for different types of kids and different developmental levels:

“I’m not sure.” True of course, since everyone has a different story. This teaches that we don’t have to know back story to have sympathy.

“Some people don’t have a place to live. I think that must be hard.” Teaching empathy but not expecting a lot of deep philosophical musings from your child.

“Why don’t you tell me what you think?” Great for getting a kid to express their concerns or feelings, you aren’t refusing to answer their question, just engaging them in a little conversation first.

“Some people are not as (lucky/blessed/fortunate) as we are. Would you like to do something to help people who have less?” For a kid who is a do-er, this can be really empowering. Guide your child to a related activity. You can search your house for some unused toiletries or linens to donate to a shelter, you can detour to the grocery store for some gift cards to give to the next homeless person she encounters. If you have the time and inclination, the two of you can volunteer for a neighborhood clean up or at a homeless shelter cleaning or serving food. You might be surprised how many volunteer opportunities let kids come along.

Talking about these issues with our kids teaches them empathy and also responsibility.  You have the power to raise a child who will look head on at the problems in society and search for solutions!

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6 thoughts on “Mommy, why is that person sleeping on the sidewalk?”

  1. I think this is such a good answer. I only hope that when I face these kinds of questions, I know what age appropriate answer to give and words don’t completely fail me. This stuff is so much harder than the just keeping them alive stuff.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment Krista. The raising people of strong character stuff IS harder than the keeping them alive stuff, but it is what makes humanity so amazing.

  2. I’m a big fan of telling the truth to your kids, but limiting the conversation to just the information they ask for, because they’re usually asking age appropriate questions and we adults tend to go too far. Example: My brother (probably about age eight) once asked my dad what the moon weighed. Twnety minutes after my dad had gotten out the encyclopedia and talked about space and physics and science, my brother said, “Dad, I don’t want to be an astronaut, I just wanted an answer to my question.” 🙂

    1. You are absolutely right. Short answers, and asking our kids questions about their questions can help us understand how much information they are ready to understand.

  3. My five-year old son and I were leaving a pricey pizza place. It’s a big treat for us to get ‘that’ pizza. And we saw a homeless person. My son pointed, laughed, and said, ‘Look at the hobo!’ I was appalled. First, I asked him what ‘hobo’ means. He said it meant ‘a creepy person’. Then I said it’s never nice to call someone a name. Then I walked over and made him apologize to the gentleman. (he’s been in our neighborhood a long time, I was comfortable with the potential interaction) The gentleman thanked him for the apology for name-calling, and shook my son’s hand.

    Apparently a friend of my son does this, because his mother is uncomfortable with the questions SHE gets about when her own son sees homeless people. So this is the behavior she has taught her child, and it came into my home.

    I had a different kind of talk, and now my son shows compassion when he sees someone homeless. He understand though that not every one is someone we would approach, they are strangers. So when he is concerned after seeing someone, we go through a pile of laundry (we have plenty of those to explore!) and we find some things for our ‘donate’ bag. We make a regular trip to Goodwill, and make a point of all carrying the bags together.

    This is important for us all to work through ourselves, because our children recognize it and they look to us for guidance. Good question!

    1. Christine,
      This is awesome! You are so right that our kids will (more than they would like to admit) view the world the way we do.

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