Teach your children well

Bridging a divide; what a child learns. 

We, as a society, are divided. Of that there is no question.  

One large and complex issue is homelessness. And we are divided as to what to do about those who experience homelessness and sometimes connected with that, those who experience mental health and substance use issues and disorders.  

What are we teaching our children about this divide?

People are concerned that their children are seeing people who are homeless, using drugs, or struggling with psychosis and other mental health issues.  

It seems from the arguments I hear that adults find this disgusting, abhorrent, dangerous and something that doesn’t belong in their culture.  

So “those” people are tagged with labels such as:

  • Vagrants
  • Bums
  • Crack-heads
  • Junkies
  • Crack whores.

Even the terms addict or alcoholic (lush, drunk, alkie) are used without prejudice so to speak.  

Children are not deaf or blind.  

They hear and see the words and attitudes of their families and close friends.

Then, to protect their “altruistic goodness,” people then qualify their disgust and so forth with the precursor of “I know they need help, but….”  

What usually comes after is, “but not here where our children can see them; not here where we can see them; it is not safe for our children and it brings down our property values.” 

Then, when they protest facilities or tent sites or shelters, they have their children right out there holding protest signs against providing the very needed services that are being provided. 

What do the children learn from this?

The adults finding those experiencing homelessness, mental health and substance use issues as undesirable and disgusting are teaching their children how to other-ize people.  

They are teaching their children that:

  • “Those” people do not belong in society. 
  • Those people have somehow chosen their place. 
  • Those people are bad because they do not have homes or they are using drugs.  
  • They are teaching their children that those bad people do not deserve to live near the rest of us . They are teaching their children that all of those people are dangerous. 
  • They are teaching their children to stay away from people like this, to push them away from the rest of society.  
  • They teach their children that “those” people are not and should not be part of our society.

In contrast, I have seen the children of people who recognize and empathize with “those” people.  

  • Those children are making gift baskets.  
  • Those children are collecting socks and mitts for the winter.  
  • Those children are with their parents sometimes volunteering to help in various ways, baking, writing cards of encouragement and more.  
  • Those children are learning something very different from their parents.  
  • They are learning compassion, empathy and acceptance.  
  • They are learning that “those” people actually belong in our society.  
  • They learn that “those” people actually do need help and that we are the ones who must provide it.  

They are even learning that a small number of “those” people are so sick that they could be dangerous and the children learn to keep their distance, and stay within safe spaces. (Just like they shouldn’t talk to strangers or keep disturbing secrets, and other similar protective strategies).  

The adults in this scenario are protecting their children even though the children are involved and exposed to this particular reality of people in society.  

They learn that some of our citizens who have, and still do belong to our communities, have wound up where they are, for a multitude of different reasons.

There is one thing that ties all of us together and helps to close the divide in our communities.  

Parents, adults want their communities to be safe from illness, crime and dangerous people.  

Children absolutely need safety in their communities. We all want to know that we can go about our days without unnecessary and unexpected worry or danger. There is absolutely no faulting anyone for that. That is something we all desire and cherish in our communities.

But, it is not something that has ever fully existed in any community. It is dangerous to believe otherwise.

So we have a divide.  

On one hand, in the name of safety and desirable community, we have a seemingly overwhelming number of people who believe that we should push “those” people away; That “those” people do not belong anywhere near us. And that “those” people need help … but not in our neighbourhoods.  

On the other hand, in the name of safety and desirable community, we have a seemingly growing number of people who, in the name of safety and desirable community, who believe that it takes all of us to help those experiencing homelessness, mental health and substance use issues.  

That answer is embracing and including those who struggle. Children learn to see the person beyond the behaviours and circumstances that have led to such an undesirable situation.  

They learn that “they” are “us.”

In both cases, our children are learning their place in society by virtue of what we, as adults, are modelling for our children. The questions really are:

  • Which approach do we think will be most effective for everyone in our community?  
  • And which approach will help our children close community divides?  

That is a choice that “we” make every day.

Ben Goerner is a retired mental health and substance use counsellor and an active singer songwriter and blogger.  He lives in Oyama with his wife and is proud of his daughter attending UBCO.


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