We all want our children to grow up as healthy, well-balanced individuals who have understanding and empathy for the challenges others face in the world. But how can we talk to our children about the sadness and complexities of poverty without confusing or overwhelming them.

We asked our friend Asher Morrison, a clinical psychologist, for some clues to find the balance between giving too much information to children and being over-protective. Asher has worked extensively with children and their families for many years.

What are the advantages of helping children understand poverty in the world around them?

Asher: One of the real benefits of exposing children to the lives of those in poverty is the opportunity to foster and develop empathy. Empathy is a key attribute to healthy relationships and is something that develops throughout childhood as children move from a "me" focused (egocentric) worldview to a worldview that takes into account the needs of others. By exposing children to the needs of those in poverty, and in trying to work out ways to help those in poverty, we can help our children to understand that their view and experience of the world is not the only one. This is a fantastic tool for promoting empathy development.

Are there any risks associated with teaching children about poverty?

Asher: When it comes to the effect of exposing children to the lives of others that are subject to poverty, the most significant risk is that you may traumatise your child. There are some details in the tragedy of poverty that should be kept from children, as they may stir up anxiety. For instance, sharing detailed information with your young children about human trafficking may create unnecessary fear of being abducted or subjected to violence.

What is the best approach for parents to take to find a balance between these two challenges?

Asher: The challenge in exposing children to poverty is in finding the balance between sharing the stories and challenges of those in poverty, without sharing potentially traumatic details. The level to which we share depends on the age of the child, and also their level of social and emotional development.

How can parents explain poverty to their children in a loving, hopeful and wise way?

Asher: When explaining poverty to children, there are a number of ways that can help to ensure that this is done appropriately:

  1. Keep conversations age-appropriate. Understand your child's current level of social and emotional development. This will guide you in deciding the amount of information to share with them.

  2. Be prepared for tricky questions and know what some of your answers will be. For example, your children will probably ask you why some children do not have homes, food or money. You don't have to have all the answers but you need to be prepared for the discussion.

  3. It’s okay if children get emotional. Do not dismiss sad feelings about the situation. This can be an expression of empathy and it is perfectly okay for your child to feel sad or angry or any manner of negative emotions about the plight of others. However, it is helpful to then use these feelings as a spring board to find hope. Which leads me to that last point...

  4. Empower them to take action. Have some ideas about the course of action that you could take to help the person in poverty, as your child will probably want to do something about the situation.

Our children don’t need to feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming need of children who are living in poverty. We can help them take action.

When a family sponsors a child through Compassion, every member of the family can contribute; whether it’s by praying, raising money, writing letters or even planning a visit to your sponsored child in their country. Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program gives you and your family the opportunity to release a child from poverty in Jesus’ name. Why not sponsor a child who’s the same age or gender as your own child so they can write letters to one another and build a friendship?

Words by Asher Morrison and Vivienne Hughes

Photo by Chuck Bigger

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