Talking to our Kids about Poverty: An Assets-Based Approach

I want to raise socially conscious kids: kids who have compassion, who are peace-builders, who advocate for justice especially for those on the margins.  In some ways, these are simple aspirations.  We often reduce them to inspirational hashtags: Be Kind.  Love Wins.  The reality is that social topics are also complex.  I spent my graduate school years studying poverty and international development, but my children are too little to understand all the grey spaces and nuances that shape my worldview.

So, how do I help my girls understand why poverty exists and how it impacts our neighbors – both locally and globally – without reducing a person to someone “other”, or worse, someone to be pitied?  Pity implies that a person has nothing to offer (i.e. “Finish your dinner – there are poor starving kids in Africa with nothing to eat!“)  This simply is not the case.  A person poor in income may be absolutely rich in faith.  Another poor in education may have a wealth of treasured relationships.  A child without extra food to share at the lunch table may have an abundance of rich thoughts and ideas that will one day shape the world.

I want to discuss poverty with my girls: to name those specific injustices that inhibit families from accessing their basic rights.  I want them to develop compassionate responses.  And I also want my girls to see and name the assets that every person has to offer: the ways we can all fill each others’ lack.  I want my girls to recognize their own lack, and affirm in others the gifts that meet their own needs.

Photo Jan 25, 12 16 31 PMSo, I’m beginning with a story.  A place to practice these dialogues about poverty and riches in our home.  You can absolutely use another book, but for the sake of this post I will be working from one of my very favorite stories that so beautifully demonstrates an assets-based worldview, Mama Panya’s Pancakes: A Village Tale from Kenya.  The story follows young Adika as he accompanies his mama to market to buy ingredients for pancakes, eagerly inviting all his neighbors, while mama “fingered two coins folded in the cloth tied around her waist.”  Poverty is never mentioned, but is an implied source of worry for Mama Panya.  The book ends with an all-out feast – in a simple village, under a tree, prepared over a fire – because everyone was willing to contribute what gifts they had.

Acknowledging that everyone has gifts and perspectives to offer, I’m going to allow my girls to do a lot of the talking by using “dialogical reading” to engage with the story.  Dialogical reading is typically used as a tool to build literacy, but I’m using it here as a tool for specifically building cross-cultural literacy and introducing basic conversations about poverty.

These are simply sample questions to fuel thought and encourage an assets-based approach…all while reading a fun and beautifully written book.


COMPLETION PROMPTS (leave blanks for kids to fill in, especially repetitive phrases)

“Here I am, Mama – two ______ ahead of you.”

“A little bit and a __________.  That’s enough.”


RECALL PROMPTS (ask child to recall something to build understanding of the plot)

Can you tell me why Adika and Mama Panya are at the market?

How many friends has Adika invited over for pancakes already?

Do you remember how many coins mama has to buy all her ingredients?

OPEN-ENDED PROMPTS (use illustrations to ask open-ended questions)

Can you tell me what you see in this picture?

How do the children in Adika’s village play and have fun?

Can you tell me about Adika’s kitchen and how they cook food in his family?


WH- PROMPTS (who, what, when, where, why questions)

How do you think Mama Panya feels in this story?  Why is she worried?

What do Adika’s friends each bring to the party?

How is Adika’s neighborhood in Kenya the same as ours?  How is it different?

Why do you think Sawandi and Naiman carry their milk in drinking gourds? (i.e. They may not have a cupboard-full of tupperware but they make awesome use of locally-available resources!)

Do you think there will be enough food for everyone to eat?  Why or why not?

Photo Jul 16, 7 33 08 PM

DISTANCING PROMPTS (relate story to child’s real-world experiences)

Do you ever worry about not having enough of something?

Do you remember when you didn’t have shoes that fit and your cousin Sophie gave you some?  How did that make you feel?

I wonder how our friend, Sue, feels since her family just moved to America and her parents don’t have jobs yet.  They always make us yummy food when we visit their home!  Can you think of something we could do to show them kindness too?

Adika had such a fun party with his neighbors because he was willing to share!  What is something we have that we could share with our neighbors?

Again, these are simply prompts to begin engaging in conversation with young children.  As my girls grow older, we will certainly have more explicit conversations that dig deeper into the definitions, root causes, and effects of chronic poverty.  My hope is that by building a strong foundation that acknowledges the assets all people have to offer, our children can engage with the world in a way that truly brings dignity…even (and especially) toward those with fewer resources.

I’d love to hear your own questions, and the ways in which you’ve engaged your own young children in these conversations – please comment away!


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