On Friday Willow and I spent some time together in town because my car ended up in the garage. We had a walk around, bought a few groceries and ate some breakfast. On the way back home in a taxi, Willow suddenly turned to me and asked,
‘Mummy, why is that man pulling food out of the bin and eating it?’
I glanced over to take a look. Sure enough, there was a man doing just as she described. He looked sad, frenzied and cold. As the taxi drove on, I gathered my thoughts quickly. I knew that my response needed to be explanatory enough, and also not to be naive. But I also needed a reply that was fully appropriate for my 4 year old to hear, process and understand.
‘He’s eating the food from the bin because he must be very hungry’ I said.
Honest, straight forward and clear but I knew that Willow needed and deserved more than that from me. So I added, ‘… some people don’t have enough money to buy food to eat, or have anywhere to live’
Willow looked right at me, her eyes wide and bewildered,’But why doesn’t anyone help him and make him some dinner? You don’t eat food from the bin!’
She was baffled. What she had witnessed went against all her own nurture experiences, her understanding of food consumption and the basic hygiene practices and rules we instil in our children from a young age, such as not to eat food from the floor or the bin, because it is dirty.
The conversation sparked some serious thinking from me. At 4 years old, Willow is beginning to see the world as it really is; both wonderful and dreadful, equal and cruel. I want to teach my children to be caring, to have empathy with those less fortunate. To be keen to change the world positively. But if I keep them wrapped in a perfect world bubble, that is unlikely to happen. Sometimes, the things that appear pretty simple, are actually very complicated, that’s the difficulty with parenting, our instinct is to protect our kids from harm and negativity. We want to avoid opening those cans of worms that may frighten or confuse them.
When we arrived home, Willow and I talked further. I gave Willow reassurance that there are people who help those in need. Shops, businesses and charities that offer food, shelter, support and care. I explained that he Salvation Army building (that we drive past on a morning on the way to school) is one of those places. That it is a safe place for people who have no home or money for food to go to for help.
But what about other often linked issues that come with homelessness? Addictions, mental health, abuse, immigration, lack of knowledge/support, the list goes on. These social issues are like Pandora’s Box, often unanswerable. I decided it best to avoid much of these issues. At 4 years old, Willow would unlikely understand these layers of deprivation just yet. The simple, clear explanation, reassurance and a discussion about how people can help, was enough. It gave Willow more of an understanding of the world, I hope but also perhaps a more awareness of herself and her own life.
Sometimes, in life things don’t go as we plan them to. Decisions we make affect our lives and we have to live with the consequences, whether positive or otherwise. I think it’s important to recognise suffering and hardship with our children to a certain extent. It’s a way of the world sadly, but it also encourage ways of change or have discussions about ways others can help. Social issues are important to us all, they affect us all and so involving children from a young age is perhaps a way of improving our world. Increased awareness, kindness and empathy goes a long way when sadness is unfolding worldwide whether it be through social or economic issues, politics or acts of God causing crisis, discrimination or devastation.
Through my parenting, I hope my children remain kind and to have courage to stand up for issues that are unjust, as they see fit. To understand that life is not always fair, but to have the inclination to keep going. I hope they become inspired to help others less fortunate than themselves as they learn about the world’s issues. But for now, I just have to try my best to guide them the best I can, to be good little people. Little people who love, care and notice. Little people who ask questions. Little people who notice that the world is not, fully as it should be and little people who remain curious, and compassionate.