A couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with fifth grade students about the nature of home. The question we were exploring was: What makes something a home?

The students began by talking about home as a place, where you “feel comfortable and warm,” where you “are cared for,” where you “can be yourself.” The latter comment led to a suggestion that home is a place of greater freedom than many other places, like school, where, as one student put it, “You can only be yourself there if the person you are fits within all the rules and the structure.”

“Everyone has a different view of home,” another student offered, “It really depends on how you see it.”

“Everyone does understand the word ‘home’ differently,” responded a student. “So I am not sure what the point is of talking about home. I mean, you could look up the word ‘home’ in the dictionary and it would give you a certain definition. But that definition doesn’t cover everything people think of when they think of home. We can never decide one thing that makes a home a home, because everyone thinks of home in their own way. So what’s the point?”

“If home is important to us,” I responded, “doesn’t it seem worthwhile to think more carefully about what we mean when we talk about it? Even if we won’t end up agreeing on exactly what makes something a home?”

We then reflected about the nature of homelessness  what does it mean not to have a home? Can you be “homeless,” in the sense that you have no permanent place to live, yet still have a home? Some students asserted that home is more about feelings than a place, and that it might be the case that even though you were “homeless” because you had no place to live, you might be around people who care about you and you feel at home when you’re with them.

I asked the students whether, if you could have a home even if you have no place to live, you also could have a place to live, or even many places to live, and yet not have a home. Several students replied that yes, just because you live in a house or apartment, that doesn’t make it a home. So what does? “It’s really internal,” responded one student. “Home is about your feelings. It could be how you feel about the people you live with, or you could live alone but surround yourself with things that make you feel comfortable and protected.”

Then the student who had questioned the value of the discussion raised his hand and said, “You know, I’ve changed my mind. I wondered why we were talking about this when we weren’t going to end up ever being able to define home. But now I think that talking about what home is and how different people see it makes you think more about what a home should be. That’s why it’s important.”

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