Affluenza: it might not be a medical disease, but it certainly runs rampant. Look no further than the current election cycle, with all its gaffes and backpedaling. An activist parent’s challenge is to change things for the next generation, to create a passion for closing the privilege gap.
Despite what we might think, parents have been trying to teach children about privilege for years. Remember not liking dinner but feeling obligated to eat because children were starving in China? How about learning that money doesn’t grow on trees? Did you ever stop climbing on the furniture because it was the “only one we’ve got” or “we worked hard for that?” We can critique old-fashioned parenting all we want, but parents have played a role in understanding privilege for as long as parenting has existed. It may well have been a less refined understanding of privilege than we talk about today, but it has always been part of a parent’s job.
These days, the idea of privilege is far more nuanced (yay for intersectional feminism!) and the gap seems far wider. Understanding privilege is not all about learning intersectional theory. It’s more about the development of attitudes and the creation of a foundation of empathy.
“Anyone can succeed” or “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ideas are outdated. The privilege we are born into matters more and more as our the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged becomes wider. Millennials and their children will need to take on the challenge of closing this gap, and parenting will be an important aspect of making progress.
Here are six tips for encouraging an understanding of privilege:
1. Consider the community you live in.
Many communities are still very insular. There is nothing wrong with choosing a neighborhood because the schools are best rated, the crime is low and you are able to afford it. But parents shouldn’t ignore what life outside the community looks like. If your life of privilege becomes a microcosm of the rest of the world for your child, that’s the problem.
Conduct your own community inventory. What does your child think is the norm? What does your child not understand about the real world? Think back to your own childhood. What didn’t you understand about the world outside your community before you ventured out on your own?
2. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.
The experience of being different is wholesome and grounding for our children. Families can and will be different. But the lifestyle competition in communities can be fierce. Social media feeds are filled with tropical or international vacation updates, new cars, sports scholarships, lavish parties and achievement awards.
You don’t have to begrudge anyone the lifestyle, but you can halt the urge to keep up with others. There is a beauty modeling being happy with what you have. There are many ways to be happy in life — money isn’t the only path to success. It is okay to allow your child to go without every once in awhile, to have staycations, to save for college or to teach some alternatives to luxuries.
3. Expand the typical definitions of privilege.
The trick here is to support empathy and add different types of privilege to the continuum. Don’t just focus on financial advantages. Other privileges are as important and can be better understood through a lens of empathy and reflection. Teaching our children to wonder about their own privilege sets them well on the way to understanding the “head starts” some people receive in education, mental health, child care, race, religion, family structure, access to transportation, etc.
When you or your child disagrees with someone else, do they wonder about that other person’s unique circumstance? Having honest dialogue (note: I use the word dialogue here, not lecture) about different views in a disagreement is one way to promote empathy. In age-appropriate ways, ask them to consider the structure of society and how it comes into play.
4. Allow for feelings to be part of the conversation too.
Understanding one’s unique privilege doesn’t happen through lecturing and preaching. Young children are ego-centric. They have to be, in order to explore the world on their own terms. They may not always feel so advantaged. Although everything can’t be jammed into their psyche at once, children have an amazing capacity for working memory. Memories of ideas, feelings and pictures make new connections throughout their childhood and adolescence. While one of my children’s level of understanding blossomed in middle school, another really understood privilege after the first semester of college, while immersed in a more diverse community.
5. Encourage service.
I put this lower on my list for a reason. Sometimes parents believe token visits to soup kitchens or school food drives are enough to promote understanding of privilege. But if community service becomes just another chore or school requirement, the experience can feel less authentic for kids.
Hands-on action is great, but only if it is part of a bigger framework of social justice or is relevant to your child’s interests. Token global service trips should be considered carefully. Educate yourself on the difference between a destination vacation for teens and a valuable service to international communities. Seeing the world is eye-opening and a worthy opportunity, but tokenism in service is counter to authentic understanding and empathy. Ask yourself and your child: who is this trip really for? There is no right or wrong answer. Just make sure you’re making an honest assessment of the adventure.
6. Correct hateful speech or stereotypes.
If your child says something that doesn’t sit right, ask questions about where it is coming from. Correct yourself if something unintended comes out of your mouth, too, and discuss anything you hear in media or on the news. It is important for our children to that learn words have certain meanings that suggest intention. Children must learn to think before they speak and to consider how words and attitudes are interpreted by a larger cross-section of people.
Hopefully our children will one day be running the dialogue themselves, checking their parents’ privilege and being crusaders in the battle against affluenza and inequality.