How to Teach Our First-World Kids About Third-World Poverty

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At the time, I didn’t know I had a rare kind of virus contracted from my most recent trip to Uganda.

I just knew I was tired. I’d had approximately eight hours of sleep in three days, my house was a mess, and my boys were complaining about having nothing to do. Meanwhile, toys, games, stuffed animals, puzzles, and coloring books littered the carpet, stairs and bedrooms.

Nothing to do. I’d just flown halfway around the world, home from Africa—home from a place where children literally had nothing to do, and yet, I hadn’t heard them complain nearly as much.

And that’s when I lost it. I told my boys I was going to give their toys away to someone who would appreciate them. I told them I’d just spent a week with kids who played with sticks and dirt.

And they just stood there, my four year old and six year old, mouths agape, staring at this frizzy-haired women with red eyes. My baby girl tottering between us with a crayon in her mouth.

I stalked off. I didn’t say sorry. I was too upset because it was so unfair. I didn’t know how to parallel the two worlds: I didn’t know how to absorb the extreme lack of material goods in the slums with the blatant waste I inadvertently supported here in my house, every day. I didn’t know how to show these little people the wealth of entertainment at their fingertips. It overwhelmed me, and bested me.

Do you want to share the reality of poverty and plight of those in the the third world with your children, but feel a little stuck? Our own emotions can feel so huge we don't know where to begin. Big hurts in a big world can be difficult to help make sense to little hearts, but here's one way to start.

And then, as I sat, and breathed, inhaling and exhaling Yahweh, asking Jesus to enter this situation, I remembered something.

These weren’t just any “little people.” They were MY little people. They were my children. My job was to take care of them, to nurture them, to teach them, to guide them. They weren’t the enemy. They were kids. I was their only Mommy. And I heard Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me.”

My anger, my emotion, had prevented my children from coming to Jesus in that moment.

So I begged them Come, put my face in their hair and asked them to forgive me. I told them how much I loved them and that it was hard for me because there were so many children who didn’t have toys, and I just longed for everyone to have what they had. For the world to be fair.

My boys understood this. Kids are big on fair. And they’re big on forgiveness too. “It’s okay Mommy,” they said, nodding and looking solemn.

I don’t want my emotions to rule me. Wisdom, yes. Justice, yes. But not emotion. Emotion, as a weapon, breeds guilt. Guilt breeds shame.

It’s good for our kids to learn about poverty. It’s good for them to purge their toys and become radical givers. It’s good for them to travel, to learn the world is bigger than their living room or their neighborhood. But it’s not good for us to use the world’s poor as a way to guilt our children into behaving the way we think they should. That’s not fair to the poor, or to our children.

In my anger, let me not sin, I prayed, as I helped the boys clean up and we went outside, under the wide sky which unifies us all. Into the peace and quiet of a creation uncluttered by plastic Happy Meal toys or Duplo pieces.  

This, where I join the two worlds. This, where east meets west and the child playing with dirt meets another child playing with dirt.

And I hear Him say again: “Let the little children come to me.”

Blessings,

Emily Wierenga

Emily T. Wierenga is an award-winning journalist, blogger, commissioned artist and columnist, and the author of six books including the new memoir Making It Home: Finding My Way to Peace, Identity and Purpose (Baker Books, 2015). Proceeds from Emily’s books benefit her non-profit, The Lulu Tree, partnering with single mothers and women in the slums of Africa. She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and three children. For more info, please visit www.emilywierenga.com. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.