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4 Ways I'm Teaching My Kids to Check Their Privilege

Photograph by Twenty20

The “problem” of privilege isn’t going to garner much sympathy, nor should it. It’s certainly not a parenting concern I ever thought I’d have. But here I am with two daughters in a modest split-level in New Jersey, wondering how I can raise my kids to understand that not everyone has enough food to eat or a roof over their heads.

“Why don’t we have a nice house?” my daughter asked one day on the drive home from school.

“We do,” I said.

“Not like that one,” she said, pointing to one of the mansions that line the main street in town. “I wish we lived there.”

“We don’t need a house like that,” I said, trying not to get irritated. So our girls can attend the best schools in the area, it took every penny we had to afford a house in our affluent town. Then I realized my kid wasn’t ungrateful, she was clueless.

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I spent most of my childhood in Southwestern Virginia. The beauty of Appalachia is unparalleled, but poverty pervades the region. Though my father’s job as a civil engineer meant I never experienced it firsthand, I knew it existed.

There’s still a little dirt under these fingernails, and I intend to pass it on.

Poverty was not just something on TV or in books. It was the rusty trailer on the river bank, the cars held together with duct tape and ingenuity, and it was real and raw in the paper-thin faces of some of my peers. I played with children on welfare and sat in the cafeteria with boys and girls who were only eating because of free lunch programs and government subsidies.

My daughter simply lacked perspective. Compared to most of the houses in town, ours is unimpressive. She’d never been to Disney like most of her classmates. We drive used Fords and shop at outlet stores. But college is an expectation for her and her sister, not a dream. If they need something—a prescription, a new coat, ballet shoes—we buy it. They are fortunate, and I’m both exceedingly grateful for it and determined they should be privileged with perspective. Because without perspective, how can I expect them to take the opportunities they were lucky enough to be born into and use them to make the world a better place?

So I’ve started small. Here's how:

1. Saying No with Purpose

Like most kids, mine often see things they’d like. When I tell them no, I also remind them that we are very fortunate to be able to afford all the things we need and even some of the things we want.

2. Giving to Others

We started by buying presents to donate to Toys for Tots at Christmas. At first, my oldest daughter was upset that she had to give away the present she bought. However, she was even more upset when she learned that some families can’t afford to buy their children toys for the holidays.

Presents seemed like an easy first step. I struggle with how to explain that not all children have the medical care they need or clean drinking water or food. My kids have never gone hungry or thirsty or been unable to see a doctor when they needed. However, they can relate to seeing someone get a present (at a birthday party, for example) and not receiving one themselves.

3. Respecting Where We’re From

My great-grandparents were all farmers of varying success. My father was the first in his family to attend college. There’s still a little dirt under these fingernails, and I intend to pass it on.

I don’t want my children to feel superior to anyone. Just the opposite. I want them to be aware that life isn’t always fair. I know some very intelligent people who never had the opportunity to go to college. We all know “important” people whose position in life was enabled, if not guaranteed, at birth. I want my girls to be respectful of hard work, whether it’s the student studying for the test or the janitor sweeping the hallway. Hard work got me where I am today, but I’d be ungrateful to say it was all my own.

I will do my best to explain the poverty I hope they never know. And I will fail.

4. Bursting the Bubble

The truth is, I live in the same social bubble as my children. During my company’s back-to-school supply drive, I called the school in Camden we were supporting and asked for the class supply lists. Our intention was to buy the items the teachers requested, so the school could give them to the children who couldn’t afford them.

“We don’t have supply lists,” the principal said kindly. “Most of our children can’t afford it, so we just purchase materials for the class to share.”

Even in an area as depressed a rural Appalachia, we had class lists and most kids could afford the items on them. I’d never lived in a place where extreme poverty was the norm, not the exception. That phone call was an eye-opening and humbling experience.

When we drive through the impoverished streets of Camden on our way to the local aquarium or pass a homeless woman on the streets of Philadelphia, I know my daughters are watching. And though part of me wants to keep them in a world where everyone is fed and housed and cared for, a larger part knows that world doesn’t exist. At least not yet.

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So, I will explain that not everyone has a home. I will explain that not everyone has a good job. I will do my best to explain the poverty I hope they never know. And I will fail.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that I understand very little of the world beyond my experiences. My perspective on poverty has always been as an outsider looking in. I acknowledge that in the hopes my lack of experience, while narrowing my perspective of the world, has not made me blind to the rest of it. Being aware of other’s difficulties has made me more grateful for the things I have and less envious of the things I don’t. More importantly, it inspires me to consider ways I can be a positive force for change.

The steps I’ve taken so far are admittedly small. As my daughters grow, as I grow, I know I must do more to teach them to be the women I hope they’ll become.

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