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I Talked to My Son About Poverty. This Is What Happened

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Having an intellectually curious 6-year-old means that daily life—a walk to camp or listening to the radio—creates infinite opportunities for learning and thought-provoking conversation.

Over the summer, the route to my son’s summer camp took us past an area where there are often folks sitting on the sidewalk asking for money. As he dragged himself up the hill in the heat, my son would stare at these black men with curiosity and concern. He began asking questions about why people are poor, and what our responsibility is to help them. He was asking fundamental questions about why our society is the way that it is and what we should do about it. I found myself wondering how to actually explain it to him, in language he’d understand.

READ: It’s Time to Begin Explaining Anti-Semitism to My Children

First he asked me: Why are people poor?

How do you answer this incredibly complex question in a way that a 6-year-old can understand? We talked about the history of slavery in the United States and all of the discriminatory policies that followed—including discriminatory housing practices, lack of access to quality education and bleak job prospects—that have made it so hard for black Americans to accumulate and pass down wealth. We also talked about all of the reasons why individuals and families of any race who have enough money to get by when things are going well might become poor if a health problem develops or someone loses their job. We talked about the fact that some people’s brains work differently, and they feel their emotions differently, and how this can make it harder for them to get or keep a job, especially if they don’t have family and friends to help them.

Later in the summer, we heard a story on the radio about the rise in violent crime in Washington, DC. He worried about whether the shootings would come to our neighborhood—and if not, why not? This led him to ask other questions, like:

1. What would his life be like as a young black boy as opposed to a young white boy? Would it be harder for him to do the things he wanted to do? Would he be less safe?

2. If he was black, and his brother was white, would the police treat them the same

3. Why do people treat others unfairly? Don’t they even know it’s unfair?

READ: If I Want My Kids to Stand Up to Prejudice, I Have to Do It Myself

These questions made my son angry. He wanted to punish all of the people who were treating others unfairly, because it seemed obvious to him that if they were being “mean,” they must be doing it on purpose. So we talked about the idea of “unconscious bias”; how negative ideas and images of black people and other minorities are so pervasive in our country that we have all internalized some of the negative attitudes unconsciously to some extent. And that given this, punishing people isn’t the most productive way to change things.

Instead, we can help people to think consciously about how they see other people and to better understand their others experiences. After thinking about this for a few minutes, my son suggested that we create an opportunity, “a dream,” where people who had never experienced what it was like to be treated unfairly because of their race, or how much money they had, could have that visceral experience and better understand the experience of others. (It turns out that some good people at Stanford are already ahead of him on this).

We also talked about the fact that, according to Jewish tradition, it isn’t a choice of whether we help to fix these problems—it’s an obligation. We discussed that Jewish tradition teaches us that our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of everyone around us—that their suffering diminishes our own joy. As the writings of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sephardi Jewish poet Emma Lazarus both remind us, none of us is free until we are all free.

My son believes in a world that makes sense—where there’s right and wrong, but right usually wins. He also believes in a world where there is a clear answer to every problem, and that he often has the power to fix what is broken. My challenge is to explain to him the brokenness of our society, without painting a picture so dire that he doesn’t have motivation and hope to make things better. At the same time, I know that if he’s willing to wrestle with these complex realities, to imagine himself in the shoes of others, then surely the rest of us can try to do the same.

READ: When I Became a Jew, I Committed to Social Justice—Now I Followed Through

These conversations opened that door, and I know there’s much more for us to explore together. At the very least, I hope he left these conversations understanding that our family asks these kinds of tough questions, and doesn’t shy away from talking about complicated issues. And I walked away realizing that it’s possible, and necessary, to have these conversations with our children, because a more just future depends on us doing just that.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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