This week I’ve thought a lot about privilege. How will I help my kids understand this concept? Which led me to question: how did I come to acknowledge and understand privilege as a kid? Understanding my privilege has absolutely evolved from whatever I thought it was as a child. But I also remember feeling and knowing – as an upper-middle-class-white-kid growing up in Southern California – that I had it really good. If there weren’t conversations I had with my parents about it specifically (and I can’t pinpoint any, or really ever remember them using the word privilege), I can come up with plenty of examples how my parents taught and gently exposed me and my sisters, not just to the luck we were born with, but a more worldly view.
A few examples that stand out: When I was in about 1st grade we wrote letters and sent care packages to soldiers in Desert Storm. I think this was organized through my school. We had the opportunity to meet the group of soldiers when they returned from duty. I remember that some didn’t return. I had no idea at the time what the real politics of that war were (or what “politics” even was at that age), but it contributed to lessons in empathy: for military and army families and the sacrifices they make, and the innocent civilians in other countries actually living through war. A few years later, when I was 12 or 13 and an avid reader, I read Zlata’s Diary- a diary of a girl nearly my exact age chronicling her daily life during the Bosnian war. I have to assume my mom bought this book for me to read. Well over 20 years later I’m able to recall the impact it had on me at that time. Throughout Jr. High School and High School I participated in a organization called National Charity League. Aspects of it I absolutely loathed (think: debutante & ‘looks good on college application’… some superrr white privilege stuff…) but the main point of it (especially to me) were the hours of charitable work we were committed to fulfilling. My mom never let me quit, even when my schedule with competitive soccer was around the clock. I remember showing up to a ton of volunteer events in uniform, stinky and sweaty. I was constantly embarrassed by that, but how grateful I am now she kept me going. We spent a lot of time in a local shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence and worked directly with the homeless community at distribution events like Toys For Tots.
My parents also often opened up our home to exchange students throughout my childhood: from Japan, Italy, Germany. I actually never gave it much thought as a kid. It was just something sorta fun my mom signed us up to do, but looking back I’m incredibly grateful. Those were valuable experiences to meet and learn about people from other cultures and other parts of the world. These are some examples. There are more. It was all stuff we just did or just happened. Stuff my sisters and I sometimes complained about at the time. But my parents knew it was important. And proving their point: I do in fact remember much of it. Maybe now more than ever.
The other morning I woke up next to both of my babies. I hadn’t slept well, but I was extra grateful to feel their warm little bodies squished up next to mine anyway. I felt an overwhelming urge to share that gratitude with them, to model it, for their benefit, and mine. I want them to feel and know that they are lucky.
Perhaps teaching gratitude (by practicing it with them) is the centerpiece of teaching privilege.
I don’t take for granted that in their world when I tell them (or they tell me) “I’m so grateful to get to wake up next to you” it is just that. There is no fear that tomorrow that wouldn’t possibly be the case.
It is no secret to my children, namely my five-year-old, that her parents do not agree with actions or behavior of our President. Sometimes she asks me why. This is a sensitive line to dance with her. I want to protect her. Wrap her in the bubble and innocence of childhood. And pay mind to the particularly empathetic and sensitive child that she is. She cannot stand to watch the movie Dora — about a fish who spends 2 hours separated and searching for her family. She cried as a two year old watching The Good Dinosaur. Her emotions can be downright enormous. As can be the expressions of love that come from her.
My solution is to share age and personality appropriate tidbits from my own mouth so we can interpret it together.
Our gratitude practice transitioned gently to the topic heavy on my heart: there are people born into this world in difficult circumstances. They are different from you. You are safe. They want better lives and safety for themselves and their children, like you have. And our country needs to stand up for them, to help and support them. This led to such a beautiful conversation about standing up for ourselves, and for others. I was able to give her examples. Over the weekend I beamed with pride when I saw her stand up for herself. A vivacious new friend kept trying to override and interrupt her turn to lead the synchronized swim routine in the pool. With some shaky confidence, and without getting angry, she boldly told this older girl (she’d been trying to impress no less!) that it was still her turn. I told her that was standing up for herself, in a kind & respectful way. I also gave her a recent example when she stood up for her little sister.
And then we talked about the times in the future, maybe at her new school, that she might see or hear someone harm or be unkind to someone she doesn’t even know. And that it would be important to stand up for them too. That’s one of the reasons Mama & Daddy disagree with Donald Trump a lot: we feel he often doesn’t stand up for people in the ways the President of the United States should. And lots of times he is actually the one doing or saying unkind things – especially to certain groups of people.
I think a lot of our conversation sunk in with her. I’m sure some of it was a bit lofty as I jumbled through intention with my words. But I’m proud of where we got to, and where we’ll continue to go.
Making sure my kids grow up to have a healthy reality check on their privilege, and instill empathy and compassion in their big-little hearts is a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
Sometimes I feel guilty about my own privilege: why me vs someone else? A dear friend and life coach (Allie Stark) told me what she tells anyone who struggles with this: with privilege comes responsibility. You are responsible to be of service in the world. Parenting these traits into our young children is hopefully one of the ways the future gets a little brighter.
Featured image by Manuela Guillén