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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.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Eric West | Rethinking the Dream

    These look like some good tips. In my life, I don’t see much poverty on a regular basis. Sure there is the occasional homeless guy standing on the corner, but that’s about it. One thing we have done with our daughter is to donate toys and clothes as we have decluttered and downsized. It’s a small step in engaging with poverty, but it gets her to start thinking of others.

    • teresa

      your comment caught my eye, because that was my daughter’s life too (she’s now 19 in college). Realizing that she would not have much exposure with ordinary day to day activities, in fact, she was in a place where if left unchecked, she would think everybody was A-OK, I intentionally created activities to take us out of our comfort zone and out of our regular space. Even things like participating in the JDRF (juvenile diabetes research fund) walk helps kids to understand that not everybody is like them. We worked with the homeless, went to schools that were less fortunate, went to shelters, traveled to places with extreme poverty (brazil, mexico, so. us states). It’s a VERY important thing to do when they don’t see it day to day. Some of her friends have a very unrealistic view of the world. (What?! Everybody doesn’t have their own car, phone, computer, room, and go on vacation out of the country every summer!)

      These are Great Tips – thank you for sharing!

      • Adriel Booker

        Great ideas. Thanks Teresa.

    • Adriel Booker

      Eric, you’re not alone! Most of us don’t see much poverty on a daily basis (or perhaps don’t recognize it). Personally that motivates me to be even more intentional for how I relate these issues to my littles. I think donating toys is a great way to start the conversation!

  2. Evie

    Thank you so much for this. I love the vision you give in this as well as the super doable tips. I will be sharing this!

    • Adriel Booker

      Your welcome Evie! Glad I could help!

    • Adriel Booker

      You’re welcome Evie! Glad we could help!

  3. Jennifer

    What great ideas! We have chosen to live in an urban area, and my kids are exposed to poverty on a regular basis. However, as we prepare to move overseas, I have realized that we need to prepare them for a different kind of poverty and different needs. I LOVED your comment about meeting a “real need in real time”! Too often we get preoccupied with the ethics and long-term ramifications of what we are doing (things that should concern us) and take no action at all.

    • Adriel Booker

      Yes, I wrestle with this stuff too. And I think we absolutely should!

      Best of luck with your big move. Sounds very exciting!

  4. Maggie

    Thank you for this. It is hard to consciously engage in this process and your tips help people. I have also found that our adoption of a child through compassion international helped my kids understand just how differently people live, depending on where we were born and the cultures around us.

    • Adriel Booker

      After attending a concert where Compassion was presented when I was 10 years old, I began sponsoring a little “sister” with my babysitting money and allowance. I’m convinced that was a key decision in my childhood that actually built something significant into my future. Love these types of sponsorship programs!

  5. Jill Foley

    These are great ideas. This is one area I’m passionate about. I’ve been a Compassion sponsor and advocate for almost 20 years and when I had kids, I wanted us to experience sponsorship together – as a family. We sponsor kids who were born on the exact same day as each of my girls so they have “birthday buddies”. My girls have seen photos and heard the stories of the trips my husband and I have made to third world countries and just this past March, we took a family trip to Thailand where we met our Compassion child and served in an idp camp in Burma. Tonight our friend, Alex, from Uganda is coming over from dinner…he grew up in poverty but was released from it through sponsorship.

    My girls are older now – 7 and 9 – but they are fully aware that most of the world does not live like we do. There are great books you can read, and we try to serve together whenever we can. Last night we served dinner at a homeless shelter for women and children.

    • Adriel Booker

      Love that you’re so engaged Jill, and leading your family in that too. Wonderful, wonderful! I think sponsorship models like Compassion are fantastic – and even better when you can match kids with your own kids as you’ve done. Must make it so much more tangible for them to wrap their little minds around.

      Thanks for sharing your ideas with us!

  6. Breanne

    My girls are the same age as your boys and we’ve mulled over this very issue. How to share the poverty issue with them and talk to them about it but not overwhelm them and keep it still at their level.
    We’ve talked about living in another culture (in a few years) but this gives us something to work with currently.

    • Adriel Booker

      Glad we could help, Breanne. 🙂

  7. Sharon Holbrook

    An organization that teaches civic engagement and hands-on helping to young kids is

    I love the idea of having something edible in my bag to give away. It’s easy to get disillusioned about the motivations of panhandlers, and what money might get spent on, but offering food is always kind. I tell my children a story that has stuck with me since college. I was alone in the city eating a sandwich and had just wrapped up half to save. A woman with a small child approached me asking for money, saying they were hungry. I didn’t have money to give her, but I offered her the sandwich and her sincere gratefulness overwhelmed me. I’ve since been refused when I’ve offered food, but this woman’s naked hunger and profound appreciation has kept me offering.

    • Adriel Booker

      What a beautiful story Sharon – thank you for sharing!

      I’ve sometimes been refused, too. And I can understand that people would have a variety of reasons for refusing (some better than others). But, like you, those that receive gratefully keep me motivated to keep on offering.

      Thanks for the link. I’ve never heard of Caring Cubs before so I’ll definitely check it out.

  8. allison

    Great post! I especially like where you said” 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.” I want my kids to give without looking for the pat on the back for doing so.
    This video is along those lines:

  9. Emily

    My kids are 9, 7, and 5. This will be our third summer of what we have titled SOS! “Summer of Service.” I have a group of moms that participate with us each week. One mom is in charge each week of setting up the project. My kids love it! We’ve done a number of projects ranging from touring and donating to a woman’s shelter, passing out Popsicles at a park, singing at a nursing home and picking up garbage. It’s a no pressure way of serving our community. You don’t have to come each week to participate, just come when you can. It’s been a blessing in our lives.

    • Adriel Booker

      What a fantastic idea and group of friends you have Emily!! Thank you for sharing a simple and effective way to band together with our kids and serve our communities together. Love it.

  10. Elise

    This is an excellent post! Children have eyes to see needs of all different kinds, and vision to help move us (adults) towards solutions as we expose and educate them.

    My now eight year old daughter does a different fundraiser every year for a need(s) that are particularly on her heart. Her skill set and interests change each year, so two years ago that meant we did a bake sale, and last year she learned some simple abstract paintings from tutorials on YouTube and we opened a simple online store (via Shopify) to sell them. By doing this (all her idea!), she was able to raise money for victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and also for two orphanages in India.

    God LOVES to work through our littles! I try to do #3 like you mentioned and responsibly, age-appropriately make my kids aware of issues, and then I try to not say NO to their slew of ideas of how to be a part of the solution.

    If you’d like to see more about my daughter Selah’s store, last year I posted a blog about it:

    And if as an adult you’d like 5 completely cost-free ways of giving and serving you can check out some things I do here:

    Thanks so much for sharing! Together, we can make small changes that make a huge difference!

    Love in Christ!

    • Adriel Booker

      What a beautiful daughter you are raising Elise – you must be so proud of her! Thank you for sharing your ideas with us.

  11. le

    Foster care! Become a foster home and involve your kids in the decision and reasons. This is a DESPERATE need. If you can’t commit to full-time foster care, consider providing respite for other families or becoming an emergency shelter placement where kids spend a couple nights with you before either being able to return home or transition to a more permanent foster home.

    As a side note, it would be great to see some more posts about foster care here along the lines of the international adoption posts I have seen from time to time.

    • Adriel Booker

      Thanks for your insight Le. Great idea about helping kids to gain understanding by getting your family involved in foster care. It’s such a gaping need in our communities and certainly worthy of our attention.

    • j

      I’m reading this article inspired, thinking, ‘yes, I need to do more of this.’ And then I saw your comment. Our application to become a foster family was just approved. And didn’t even process that along the lines of this. Thank you. And glad to see you feel so positively about it. It feels a little scary to be starting out — overwhelming, I should say. I agree — this would be a great place to hear more about foster families.

  12. Jessica

    Love this! We’re hoping to move overseas to serve in mission in a few years time. Our little girl is only 1 at the moment, but these are some great pointers to start with, especially for helping to prepare her for the move as the scale of poverty will be much more obvious in southern Africa.

    • Adriel Booker

      All the best with your preparations Jessica! That’s a big, exciting move ahead!

  13. Yvonne Reynolds

    Great starter list for those trying to figure out where to begin! In January, my son joined me on a Compassion trip to Mexico where we were able to visit with one of our sponsored children, see the Compassion project where he attends, and meet with his family in his home. This was an amazing experience and one I know has helped my children realize how blessed we are to live in this country.

    • Adriel Booker

      Thanks for sharing your experience Yvonne. Hopefully while there they also realized how blessed your sponsored family is in Mexico, and that “blessing” takes many, many forms (not just the comforts and material possessions we are used to!).

      Love that you could take your son with you – so special!

  14. Rachel

    There’s only one really organised activity that I’ve done with my 3.5 year old where we’ve specifically talked about others having less than ourselves and that’s the Salvation Army Gift tree drive at Christmas time. We help unwrap all the presents (prefect job for a preschooler!) and the choose to match them up with other children/families. Its a tough exercise because obviously he doesn’t get to keep any of the toys but we’ve done it twice now and plan to do it again this year.
    Other than that, we haven’t really gone out of our way to ‘introduce’ our children to poverty. Maybe I should do more. But my hubby works with the Salvos and so the children and I go visit him at the shop sometimes. My son sees all kinds of people who come in. On occasion, he walks with his daddy to help someone find something they need. I think an important part of helping our children engage with poverty issues to to make sure we haven’t segregated these issues out of our own lives. We personally make it a practice to not give money to people asking but we’ll take them into the grocery store and buy them toothpaste and a pie if that’s what they need and we make sure our kids see us doing it. Just this morning I took the kids to the post office to mail a grocery gift card to someone we knew who was in need. I told the kids that’s what we were doing.
    I think my own children aren’t ready for youtube clips and such yet, only because they don’t have much concept of countries other than their own. I totally think traveling with your littles to other cultures is amazing and if you can do it, definitely do it!! Their little minds observe and process so much. Children and their capacity to feel empathy is astounding.

    • Adriel Booker

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Rachel. Sounds like you are laying a great foundation for your young children. We love getting involved in Christmas drives, too.

  15. Ally

    Thanks so much for sharing… I am starting to really think about this. Our children our getting exposed to poverty a bit through our sponsor child and missionaries we support, but I realize that we need more actions day in day out to back up what we are starting to expose them to.
    One book I just put next to my bed to read now that my oldest is preschool age is Mission Minded Child …it has some good ideas for raising kids globally minded.

    • Adriel Booker

      Just had a quick look at that book on Amazon Ally. Thanks for the recommendation. It likes like a fairly comprehensive resource. Will have to read some reviews of it and check it out a little further – my eyes are always open for good resources like that. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on it as you begin to dig in – I’m Adriel Booker on facebook if you’d like to follow up! 🙂

  16. Medha Mittal

    Lovely article! I was looking for ways to explain poverty to my 3.5 year old and stumbled upon your blog. Beautifully written and I am glad to know that moms like you exist who are raising their little ones as responsible world citizens. Thanks for your lovely post.

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