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4 ways to help kids engage with poverty issues

There was enough mud underneath my toenails to make any mother-in-law cringe. We’d become accustomed to leaving our shoes behind because they’d be buried six inches under anyway.

With my 10-month-old on my back and my 2 1⁄2 year old in hand, we trudged through the village where our medical team busily helped deliver health care and upskill local workers in a remote area of Papua New Guinea only reachable by boat.

No roads, no electricity, no market, no school, no clinic. Just clusters of tiny homes, perched precariously on stilts, and dugout canoes resting under tall palm trees.

“Mommy, where is their bed? And where is their lovey?” Levi asked.

We’d just been in one of the houses where I was interviewing women and learning about their needs, and his two-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend all that he didn’t see.

Two years later I’m still grappling with how to best answer questions like that and help my children understand poverty. I want to educate them, equip them, inspire them to generosity, and ensure that they learn to serve from a place of humility and partnership (not superiority).

I wrestle with how to expose our affluence and highlight our ability to help while not feeding into destructive mindsets that echo our imperialist roots. I don’t want to raise little “saviors”; I want to raise children who are moved with compassion to give of themselves, not out of pity but out of kindness, shared humanity, and conviction that our neighbors are worthy of our love.

My kids are still tiny – now 2 and 4 – and my parenting through these issues will evolve as their minds and hearts mature, but here are four ways I’ve begun helping them engage.

4 ways to help kids engage in poverty issues.

1. Watch promotional videos of your favorite charity.

Although the news isn’t yet appropriate for my children (and they’re too young to enjoy most documentaries), promotional videos for charities are a fantastic way to introduce kids to important issues like clean water, education, and basic health care. Promos almost always highlight a problem and a solution – they are sobering and hope-instilling. Watch a video, talk about what you see, and brainstorm an action step you can take together. (For us, this almost always includes prayer.)

2. Pack an extra sandwich on errand days.

In my city, it’s rare to drive into a shopping center without being confronted with someone asking for money or food. On errand days I try to always have a granola bar or apple in my bag, if not an entire fresh sandwich ready to give to someone who asks. Of course a sandwich alone isn’t addressing the issues that cause a man or woman to find themselves homeless, but it does address a legitimate need in real time. Let your kids give the sandwich and then talk about the situation, looking for those teachable moments.

3. Expose them (responsibly) to current events.

Even though the evening news isn’t yet an option, I want our children to understand what’s going on in the world. Last year terrible fires ravaged entire communities in eastern Australia, ravaging homes and destroying livelihoods. I found footage on youtube that wasn’t overly scary to show the boys and talked about what had happened. Immediately Levi (then 3) raised concern about the kids not having toys anymore. When I asked him if he could think of a way to help, he suggested sending them some of ours. That experience reminded me that people want to help people. Usually, being exposed to the need (and asked to help meet it) is enough to get the ball rolling. Our littles are no exception.

4. Serve together in a place where they can make friends.

Most people have an element of fear when it comes to engaging with those in poverty. Often it’s born out of misunderstanding, prejudice of worldview, or simply a fear of not being able to relate. The best way to break that barrier is to form friendships. Take your children to serve at a soup kitchen regularly enough for them to build relationships or take them overseas on a missions trip and focus on befriending one family and truly connecting. Through friendship they’ll organically learn that issues of poverty don’t have to ailienate us from our neighbors if we don’t allow them to.

Friends, I realize this list isn’t exhaustive – it’s not meant to be.

The way you and I help our children engage with the global community, especially those in poverty, will morph and change with time and experience and according to each family’s passions. What’s important is that we’re intentionally helping them engage while their innocence is still in tact and before years of isolation from these issues breed fear or contempt.

As much as I’m glad for the trend of teenagers going on short-term service or mission trips (we all know how that can help jar them out of self entitlement – yes! send them!), if it’s the first experience they’ve had reaching beyond their comfort zone, then we’ve done our kids—and our global community—a tremendous disservice.

Kids need to understand that poverty isn’t scary and those entrapped by it aren’t entirely different to those who aren’t. They need to know that each of us has something to offer, none of us are without need, and those we serve can be our teachers and providers if we learn to adjust our perspective.

And you? How are you helping your children engage with poverty issues? I’d also love to hear how parents of older kids are tackling these issues in your homes.

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