I came across an article about a book called “Where Children Sleep” by James Mollison that compares children’s rooms from all over the world. The purpose of the book is to highlight the differences between children who live in different financial situations. The images are beautiful. In the book Mollison photographs the rooms and then the children in front of a neutral background. He says “My thinking was that the bedroom pictures would be inscribed with the children’s material and cultural circumstances while the children themselves would appear in the set of portraits as individuals as equals”
The book got me thinking whether I would show it to my children. and I thought how young is too young to talk to children about poverty? Is there a specific age? or does it all just depend on the personality?
I have a 7 year old and a 4 year old (I also have a 1-year-old but our communication consists of blowing kisses to each other and screaming “UM UM UM UM UMMMMM” when he wants to eat) I remember a few years ago when my eldest was 5 and he saw a homeless man outside of the house we were renting in London and he said “Does that man sleep there always? Doesn’t he get cold? Does he have a family? Why doesn’t he have shoes?” And I said, no he doesn’t, he’s poor but he does have somewhere to sleep, he will go home soon. The homeless man never actually came back and slept there.
I lied to him because I know my son, he would have been up all night worrying about the man, he would have been heart-broken. And I felt that it is too soon for him to know that some people live horrible terrible lives full of sadness and fear.
Being back home now both S and J know there are poor people and that we have to give poor people and help them. They know this because that is the society we live in. It is an integral part of our religion to give to the poor and help them in some way. So when my children grow out of their shoes, or when they get too many toys on a birthday they know it is going to someone who needs it.
Although the other day J’s nanny asked if she could have a pair of shoes J grew out of for her niece and J got very upset because her nanny isn’t poor so shouldn’t take the shoes. J kept asking her “Are you poor? You’re not poor! You can’t have the shoes”. That’s a far cry from when she refused to donate some coloring pencils that were heading to a school in Kenya because “why don’t they go buy some for themselves”. We will find a middle ground one day.
But I do not think they actually understand that there are people out there who do not have a roof over their head. That there are children their age who do not have breakfast lunch and dinner every day like they do and that they have probably never played with a proper toy. So what is an appropriate age to show them a book like this? Will it make them feel guilty for having things those children don’t? Will it make them worry and stay up? Will it make them appreciate things more? will it not make any difference? Will J look at the pink room full of toys and scream “I WANT SOME!” (Please please don’t let that be her reaction)
We all say it, if they don’t take care of their things for example, we say “there are people out there who would kill for ——” or “I don’t care if you don’t like what’s for dinner there are children out there who can’t have any dinner” But does the concept sink in? and should it sink in now?
Also, how do we react to people who are begging in the street? Do our children see our reactions? Outside some department stores here sometimes there are little children or mothers with children who ask for money. S gets very upset if I don’t let him give them something. It is difficult to explain to them the idea that the children might not actually keep the money, some of the mothers might not actually need to be doing this. To explain that it is better to give to charities and foundations that help them and not give them directly.
A woman I know took her 7-year-old son with her on a trip she makes with some friends of hers to give blankets, clothes, pillows etc to families who live in a poor area of Riyadh. They left just before dusk and arrived at night. When the children of the neighborhood saw the van coming they all ran to it and were banging on the windows and trying to open the doors and shouting and screaming. The boy was so scared he started crying. I then over heard him saying to S “You know the “Masakeen”? (poor people in arabic). Never go to them! They are scary and they bang on the doors and windows! I never want to go to the masakeen.” Not the reaction his mother wanted, poor boy.
We are lucky because giving is so much a part of our lives here. But I still want my children to know why they are giving, who they are giving to and that there are more ways to give than just money and clothing. I am looking forward to buying the book and will tell you if I am going to show it to both my kids, to only the eldest or to none. Do you speak to your children about poverty? What age did you start? and how much detail did you go into?