Ask BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

QUESTION: My 10-year-old son has started to notice the homeless people in our community and has asked me questions about why they don’t have a place to live. He even asked me if it meant that they are bad people. I want to help him understand, but sometimes I’m afraid even I don’t fully understand homelessness myself. How should I answer his questions honestly while keeping in mind he is still very young?

BBB: With what seems like many more homeless people than ever before (in the Palisades), it is not surprising that your son wonders about them. Whether it is someone in the street asking each car for money, someone pushing a cart overflowing with possessions or a person forlornly propped up against a building, children notice anything that is different (as do we all, frankly). They work hard to understand and make sense of the world they encounter. As they grow and mature, more of the world comes into focus and is scrutinized.

It is important to understand that homelessness is not a “loaded” issue for the child…yet.  His questions about a homeless person usually stem from genuine curiosity.  That person doesn’t fall into any of the categories of people with which he is familiar.  He is not passing judgment; he is wondering. The child’s initial impression is heavily influenced by the parent’s affect, actions and responses to his questions. And it is by observation of the parent that the child first gets his cues about how to react and feel. So, as you answer your child’s questions, be aware of the attitude you may be projecting.

Homelessness, when someone doesn’t have a home—a place to sleep, for meals, and in which to keep his belongings—can be unsettling and even frightening to a child. Younger children will wonder where the person’s family is, why there is no one to help him. Many will go to a place of worry about themselves and if they will ever not have a home. Worries grow after hearing that the person doesn’t have enough money to have a home. The child wonders if his family has enough money.

If the homeless person behaves strangely or erratically, indicating that s/he may be mentally unstable or have severe emotional problems, the child’s curiosity (and sometimes fear) intensifies.  When there is an unpleasant odor or an obvious lack of physical hygiene, there are more questions. Why does she look like that? Why is he acting like that? Is he dangerous? Are we safe? Explaining mental illness is both tricky and important.

While a parent needs to answer the child’s questions honestly, I believe it is also important that our answers show compassion. Homelessness is not a crime, it is a problem. In your answers and attitude you will be modeling the empathy on which our society depends.

Here are some answers to use as starting points in explaining and discussing homelessness with your child who has raised the question. Your responses should be honest, short and answer the child’s question. No more and no less.

A person who is homeless has no place to sleep, to eat, to shower and keep himself clean, or to keep his belongings. He has no home.

Usually, the homeless person doesn’t have family or friends who can help him. (This concept is particularly difficult for young children to grasp as they can’t even imagine not living with a mommy or daddy.)

For grown-ups, having a home costs money. A homeless person is an adult who doesn’t have the money he needs to own a house or rent an apartment or to buy food.

There are many reasons that a person doesn’t have money. Usually it is because he doesn’t have a job. (With older children this may lead into a discussion about the way people get jobs.)

Mental illness is when a person’s brain is not working the way it is supposed to. Just like people have problems with their bodies, sometimes a person has a problem with his brain. (It is important, for the sake of the child, to add that it is not common to have those kinds of problems. Most people do not have mental illness.)

And here is a caveat:  Sometimes parents attempt to use homeless people as an example of what could happen to the child if …

…if he doesn’t stay in school,

…if he doesn’t go to college,

…if he doesn’t get a good job,

…if he uses drugs, etc… (Seriously, I have heard this!)

This is a bad idea, and it is not necessarily true. If a parent is going to use homelessness to cultivate feelings and action, empathy and ways to help should be at the top of the list, not fear mongering.

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals.  She is the award-winning author of the bestselling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America and has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle and many more.  Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have three grandchildren, so far.