How Do We Teach Our Children About Privilege & Socioeconomic Differences?
While Instagram can serve as a place of comparison or icky feelings, it can also be a great source of connection and knowledge. The latter is how I’ve always felt about Sue Groner’s account (known as The Parenting Mentor) which highlights ways to ‘reduce parental stress, help you relax, and find more joy’, as does her book. And most recently, her words on entitlement within our children especially provided wisdom. If you missed the post, here’s what Sue wrote:
“Whether it’s a special vacation, a new toy, music lessons, or a restaurant meal, it’s important that our children understand that those are not “rights.” These are all things for which they can express gratitude. Avoiding the slippery slope to expectations and entitlement requires discussion and perspective. Participating in service projects, donating to charities, and doing random acts of kindness all contribute to helping a child feel thankful for what they have. A simple practice of each family member expressing what they are grateful for each day, is a great way to start. It can be as simple as a sunshiny day or a friend that made you laugh.”
Selfishly, I wanted more from Sue so I asked her to participate in a Q&A about her thoughts on privilege, entitlement, and how to talk to our own children about everything above. Her answers provided a lot to work on and to think on, and I’m grateful to share this piece with you all.
What age can or should you start talking to kids about privilege and socioeconomic difference in general?
Children as young as 3 or 4 can participate in activities that you do as a family that are meant to help those less fortunate, but they won’t truly understand the impact yet. It’s not until they are about 7 that they start to become more aware of external events, as well as feelings other than their own.
How did you approach it with your kids?
A few ways…
Once my kids were in grade school, we gave them both a gift card to donorschoose.org as one of their Chanukah gifts. They were able to select a project (posted by a teacher) to help fund. By searching for projects in their grade, they could see how some children don’t have the resources they do. Often, they would receive thank-you notes from the teacher and students that benefited.
My kids loved to have big birthday parties so our rule was that they could invite as many friends as they wanted, but no gifts. Instead, they selected a charity that resonated with them. We’d suggest (on invites) to bring a donation to a charity of my children’s choice instead of bringing a gift. The charity would make a big deal about the donation, resulting in tons of positive feedback. (And, of course, they still got some gifts from us and close friends.)
Since I have a huge disdain for entitled children, we have always had our children do regular, age-appropriate chores, be responsible for their belongings, clean up after themselves, and clean up after dinner! We are lucky to have a housekeeper, but it’s a privilege, not an expectation. My housekeeper knows not to touch my kids rooms if they are a mess.
And, most importantly, we don’t say “yes” or give in to every request that comes from our kids. (Remember the needs vs. wants!)
How do you suggest the approach changing as kids mature?
In general, young children are inclined to spontaneous acts of kindness.
As a toddler, my son wouldn’t allow us to kill bugs and his heart would break each time he saw roadkill.
When my daughter was 5, we went to Barbados for a wedding. We were all on a bus together heading to an event when the bus stopped at a light and a man was outside begging. My daughter saw this and insisted we give him some money. It was the first time she had that kind of reaction and it was an opportunity to talk about helping others who have less.
As your children mature, it’s great to give them more choice in the ways that they want to help others, but make sure it’s meaningful. Whether it’s a family activity, a faith-based project, or if your child has required community service hours, talk to them about how what they’re doing is meaningful to them. It’s important that the experiences allow them to feel good about doing good.
For example, if your child is helping to paint a mural or create a garden or make sandwiches for the homeless, ask them how this impacts others. “You must feel really good about that” is a fine acknowledgement from you.
What reactions or questions can you anticipate at various stages?
Be on the lookout for observational questions:
“Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?”
“Why doesn’t Johnny have a weekend house?”
“Why can’t we go on a vacation like Sally’s family?”
As children get older, they may become more aware of the differences among schoolmates, neighbors, friends, etc. It’s helpful to you and your child to discuss these things without judgement. Rather than putting down the smelly homeless man, perhaps you can get him something to eat. Maybe Johnny’s family chooses to not have a weekend home or maybe they can’t afford it. These are fair questions and concerns, and worth a conversation.
What should we avoid when speaking to our children about privilege?
Try to avoid guilt or negativity and statements like these:
“You don’t know how lucky you are …”
“ Be grateful for what you have and stop asking for things all the time .”
“ Eat your food. There are starving children in …”
“ If you don’t put away your toys, I’m going to give them to someone who doesn’t have any toys.”
What are small, realistic ways to incorporate gratitude into our young families?
Donation days - schedule a few times throughout the year to gather old clothes, linens, toys and any other items you may want to discard and donate the gently-used items to a local charity. Each family member should find a few things of their own to contribute. Let your children know that not everyone can afford to buy these things.
Engage in family service projects - Try to find a local community organization to support. Not only does this instill social consciousness and provide for those in need, it opens your child’s heart in a way few other things can.
Mealtime or bedtime gratitude ritual - Everyone shares the 3 things that they are grateful for that day. They can be as simple as no homework, having an umbrella, a washing machine, food delivery, a hug, no traffic, a funny joke, a call with a friend, etc.
Travel - It’s one of the best ways to open a child’s eyes to the differences around the globe and we’ve personally witnessed this within our own kids…
A few weeks after returning from a trip to Vietnam, my then 10-year-old son recalled an afternoon spent in a poor, remote mountain village where the homes were dirt huts. The children had been playing outside with nothing but a piece of red yarn. “Do you want to hear my philosophy?” he asked. “Kids around here are always wanting more. They are never really happy with what they have. But the kids in Vietnam have nothing and they are happy.”
When we were in Tanzania we visited a school where the children had no books, one open-air classroom and no bus transportation.
It’s not always possible to travel such far distances, but there are opportunities much closer to home to see how people live in differently. And if you can’t get away at all, look at sites like this one. Your child will see everything from dirt huts to houses on stilts to small shacks.
If you have more questions for Sue, she’s graciously offered to answer them on her Instagram here.
Featured Image by Sue Groner