What do you tell your kids?

We rolled down 45th Street today over I-5, pulled into the left-turn lane to head North and waited. From the backseat, Baby Z’s three year-old voice piped up with one of those “why” questions you hear from three year-old all the time. This one ended up being a bit tough, though.

“Daddy, what bus is that man waiting for? Where is he going?”

Now, I got to give it to Baby Z that he understands bus stops sufficiently to know that someone sitting in one ought to be going somewhere. Unfortunately, in this case, the man was going nowhere. Regarding myself as a progressive parent who refuses to shelter his child from uncomfortable truths, I took my best shot at it.

homeless in the rain - Seattle“That man isn’t going anywhere. He doesn’t have a home, so he stays in the bus stop and the grass nearby.”

“Why doesn’t he have a home?”

Yeah, OK, we’re going there. “He doesn’t have a home because he can’t work, or doesn’t want to work. And probably because he drinks too much alcohol.”

“What?!” I could hear the sense of amazement and perhaps a tinge of delight at uncovering some new, unexpected fact: people could not work because they drank too much alcohol? He knows I drink alcohol, and that I enjoy that it makes me “dizzy”. I’ll dip my finger in whatever I’m drinking and let him have a taste, which he enjoys. How could this cause someone to not go to work?

I took my best shot at explaining how some people liked alcohol too much, and drank so much of it that they couldn’t work and that meant that they might not be able to have a home.

“Where do they sleep?”

“Well, maybe in a tent, there by the highway.”

“He doesn’t have a home because he is camping all the time!”

Mmmmm…OK, causality may be a bit muddled, but he’s tracking the basic plot.

Long conversation follows about why he doesn’t have a home, the people who try to help him, etc. All of which left me with the clear sense that we haven’t heard the last of this particular conversation.

Parents of Wallingford: what do you do when your kids ask about the homeless people living in camps by the highway? And what do you say when they ask why someone broke the windows on your car (which has happened to our friends Sarah and Terry, up by 44th and 4th Ave NE twice in the past two weeks)?

(Photo by Romi Chiorean. Taken in Seattle, not in Wallingford.)

  • http://www.floorpie05.blogspot.com Floor Pie

    I would have done something like this:

    Kid: What bus is that man waiting for? Where is he going?

    Me: I’m not sure. I don’t know that man. Where do you think he might be going?

    And see what the child says. Listen. Perhaps he’s seen this man before and has already formed some “kid logic” theories about it, or some fears, or perhaps he’s not all that interested in pursuing the conversation just now. Maybe the conversation will yield more difficult questions, or maybe that will come another time.

    Or he might just say “I don’t know.” Then you can choose if you want to delve into it right then and there or not. Does he seem ready?

    The key is to provide information a little bit at a time. Don’t over-answer his questions. It’s such a fine line…you want to reassure the child that he is safe and that this is unlikely to happen to him, but you want to do that without dehumanizing or denying empathy for the man on the bench. Lots of folks have already provided good suggestions on how to walk that line. Choose what feels authentic to you. Put it in your own words. Or perhaps a librarian could help you find an age-appropriate book to read and discuss together.

    I can understand how the “alcohol” thing might have slipped out, but hopefully you realize now that that wasn’t the best choice. All parents slip up when we’re caught off guard like that. Next time you’ll be more prepared.

    And I hate to pile on, but I do want to add: Please remember that alcohol addiction is an actual disease. An alcoholic doesn’t “like alcohol too much” anymore than someone with a peanut allergy “dislikes peanuts too much.” The body has a completely different response to that particular substance. You don’t just say “Oh gee, I guess I just won’t drink anymore” and be done with it. Your whole body and brain are working against you every step of the way. Will power alone won’t cut it. It’s hard work and it’s amazing, really, that anyone is able to beat addiction at all.

    Good luck!

  • http://www.floorpie05.blogspot.com Floor Pie

    One more thing — Anyone who’s genuinely interested in how to discuss difficult topics with small children should check out this post on Teacher Tom’s blog. (He’s a preschool teacher in Fremont and has a lot of excellent observations and insights to offer.) Good stuff.

  • Neighbor2You

    Very informative thread, and an interesting adjunct to the discussion that had developed here recently:


    I salute all you parents who are attempting to have conversations with your children about issues like homelessness or alcohol addiction. One way or another, they are forming imagery and opinions. They may come to think that alcohol is fun because it makes you “dizzy,” they may come to think that alcohol is terrible because it puts you on the street. But no matter what, I hope what’s registering is that they can raise questions and talk with YOU.

  • Jon

    To Walkinroun: Thank you for your deeply personal and poignant posting. There are two not for profit organizations in the Seattle area who work with people like your brother, THS and Evergreen. It looks like your brother went to Evergreen. I would suggest that if possible, you try to get him to go to THS where they will also treat him for mental illness issues. Evergreen does this to some extent but not with qualified mental health practitioners. Please feel free to contact me directly at: [email protected]. I would be willing to help you with this.

  • Meredith

    A few comments from a neighborhood newbie:

    Kathy — if we cannot called them “the homeless,” what should we call people who do not have homes? I am a person, but I still may be called by a group I can be associated with “Americans,” “Seattlites,” “nerds.” Truth is not necessarily derogatory — if you assume it is, you are the one with the problem.

    Walkinroun — thank you for sharing your story. It is amazing the trials and turns a life can take.

    Jro — thank you for pointing out that everyone needs to chill. I fully agree!

    Please, everyone, keep in mind that a toddler doesn’t have any of the pre-disposed assumptions about his parent’s language that we adults do. They take things very literally.

    That said, they take things one step at a time. I grew up in both NYC and San Francisco, both cities with large homeless populations (notice I didn’t use the term homeless problem) and my father taught me that those people were “bums” and I was to not only give them no money, but ignore them. I was also taught, in school and at home, to think for myself, and as I grew up my library of knowledge grew too. I have kept my vigilance, in all situations, but I fully respect each “signed” person I come across. I say hello, and don’t often give a gift of food, but sometimes I do. Don’t put so much weight on what one adult told one child one time. Wally was faced with a tough situation, and while possibly incomplete, he didn’t say something that is outright always wrong. Like Rome, a mind isn’t formed in a day.

    Colleen @ 42 — sounds perfect.

    Anyone interested in an excellent true story about how lives can take different turns (to riches or rags) check out “Same Kind Of Different As Me” http://www.amazon.com/Same-Kind-Of-Different-As/dp/0849900417 The book gets a bit too spiritual for my taste at the end, but I really appreciated and was interested by the story.

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