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Talking about the issue of destitute or street children to your children

My husband, my 6-year-old son and I moved from Tokyo to New Delhi in the beginning of 2007. We get used to seeing the children in the street by now, but our sentiments never get normalized every time we see them. In particular, whenever some children of my son's age knocking on our car window to ask for money or to sell newspapers or whatnot, my son gets tense, feeling uneasy and not knowing what to do.

It is not surprising that most residents in Delhi, including the Indian people, have the same or similar experiences, since India is known to have the largest number of working children under the age of 14 in the world (UNICEF). A recent publication, Delhi Human Development Report 2006, recognizes the working and street children as one of the city's fundamental issues, while condemning the lack of reliable statistics on their numbers as partly a reflection of the official's indifference to the problems (Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi,

The way to handle the issue of destitute or street children poses a new challenge for some of the foreign parents who haven?ft had similar experiences in the past or in their country of origin. In fact, the parents themselves are often bewildered by the situation when the global issue comes down to the interpersonal level. More or less, their moral dilemma goes something like the following: "should I give this poor child money, or at least the food that I have? No, I should not encourage him/her to be on the street by giving him/her anything. Besides, there are too many street children and why should I only help this particular child? But what would my children, who are sitting next to me, think of me if I say "no" to him/her while I always tell them about the importance of sharing and helping others?"

So how do you respond when your young children ask you questions like "what are these children going to do if we don't give money/food to them?" or "aren't their parents supposed to take care of them?" Alternatively, what do you do when your children make derogatory remarks, such as "they are filthy" or "they are robbers," and react to them by laughing or teasing (e.g., "they are not wearing underpants")? Or for the first few encounters with the street children, your children may be too scared or stunned for words.

Don't avoid the issue. Open a conversation with your children.
In search of answers to appropriately handle the imminent issue of poverty as a parent, I attended a presentation titled "Talking with our children about difficult topics, for example poverty" by an elementary school counselor at the American School, which turned out to be informative as well as reassuring.

At the outset of the presentation, the counselor informed us of the lack of literature and research on the topic (i.e., the way to talk to the middle class children about the poverty), yet suggested us to apply the same framework that is used to talk with children about other difficult topics such as sex, death, or disability. Under this framework, we can take the following approach:

Try to understand the children's thinking or reactions
Listen to your children carefully and think what the question might really mean. Then, respond to the children considering each child's developmental stage.

Acknowledge your own beliefs and/or discomfort about dealing with the issue of poverty.
Don't avoid the issue.
Understand your own attitudes and values towards the issue of poverty. Then think the values you want to instill in your children. The parents are the ones to set the example of the positive ways to interact with the world.

Start a two-way conversation, not a question & answer session.
Rather than trying to answer their questions or to lecture them, think of it as an opportunity to openly talk about the issue. Explore their misperceptions, give accurate but age appropriate information, and be honest about not knowing some answers.

The counselor concluded that living in Delhi and witnessing the acute poverty should be seen as an opportunity for ourselves and our children to develop a sense of gratitude and appreciation of what we have, and at the same time, to foster a sense of caring others and global citizenships in our children by serving to others in ways we can. I could not agree with her more.

Learn about the issue and get to know the disadvantaged children
If you are still confused about the way to explain to your children about the street children or poverty, while trying to covey a message like "all children are special," however, please take a look at the following book with your children. Although the book is meant for young children (pre-school - primary school children), it equally serves great to the adult readers.
- A Life Like Mine: How children live around the world
by DK Publishing in association with UNICEF (2002)

This is a superb book to learn about the Children's Rights and development issues (e.g., poverty) that affect children of the world. Unlike many other books of the similar titles that are complied according to the region or country, this book is divided under four themes: Survival, Development, Protection, and Participation. The similarities identified among children are not based on the things they have access to (e.g., food, schooling, home), but the types of hopes and needs that every child has. In the forward to the book, Harry Belafonte, Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, writes".... Some of the children in this book enjoy every privilege in their lives; others have been deprived of some of their basic rights. I hope you enjoy meeting them and that you discover the similarities between their lives and your own." I surmise that his words accord with the message that many parents want to convey to their children.

Take some actions to care for others
Finally, how can we serve to the destitute or street children in person? There seem to be no "correct" answers for this question, and every family must handle the matter according to what they feel the most appropriate upon talking about the issue. Many parents decide not to give out anything directly to the children in the street, but take advantage of opportunities to make some donations for the organizations that work for underprivileged children. Some others are directly involved in these organizations as volunteers. Also, there are some parents who opt to give away things (usually not money) directly to the children in the street. For instance, a friend of mine hands them out the clothes that her children have grown out of. Another person says that her family always carries a stack of food in the car in case some children come to beg alms. Whatever you decide to do as a family, it is important to explain the logic behind the action to your children by using the framework given earlier.

The fact of life is that our family continues to feel awkward when we come across the street children even after acknowledging the issue, talking about it, learning about it, and be proactive about dealing with it together with our son. It is because we, including our son, are now aware that these children are not getting the lives that they deserve.

Unlike the beginning of our stay, however, our uneasiness serves as a reminder of our gratitude in what we have, and of our responsibility over the vulnerable members of the community in which we live in, as in the school counselor's words. My son now sees my enjoying the volunteer work at a kindergarten that serves for underprivileged children. Though only a few times, he came along to the kindergarten and found that the children look just like other middle class Indian children if they are dressed in uniform in a formal class setting. He has also become more conscious of helping children who are less fortunate than he is.

In sum, talking about the destitute or poor children with my son did not scare him or confuse him, but provided him with a broader perspective of the things around him, and made him more caring and tolerant with the socio-economic diversity. As a parent as well as a global citizen, I also make my best efforts to live up to my words.


Additional reference for children's books on the global issues
- Heifer International, Read to Feed program site (click under "Look at books")
Heifer International lists recommended pictures books for children on topics such as hunger, world population, cultural diversity, sustainable development, the environment and other important global issues in their program site, Read to Feed.

Further resources for parents on the framework of talking about difficult issues
There are a number of literature and resources available on the way to talk with your children about difficult issues. The following is a couple of web sites which synthesize the key points well.
- How to talk to your kids about anything: 10 tips for talking with kids about tough issues

- Talking to our children about racism and diversity

In this website, there are some examples of abrupt comments made by the children about race or diversity followed by the concrete suggestions on the ways to respond to each case. These examples give you in depth understanding of what it means to respond to your children according to their developmental levels.
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