How we try to teach our kids about privilege

Thursday, April 2, 2015

I was reading a great post from a friend about how, as a mom to biracial kids, she is struggling with maintaining the balance between protecting and preparing her young son about racism.  It is a beautifully written and honest post that I was grateful to read even though it contained information that in the raising of my own kids I don't directly need guidance on...

Because my kids come from the ideal genetic gene pool, at least by the current (and let's face it - historical) social constructs. They are on the path to sit at the most privileged social seats as they grow up and learn about their place in our world.  And yes, as their Mom I feel blessed and grateful to be able to basically avoid full categories of lessons that some Moms have to cover.  But that doesn't give me a free pass.  And it certainly does not ensure that my child will grow up to be a decent human being.

Ah, privilege...that word that drives people nuts (and by people, I mean mostly people who look and live like me).  For better understanding of my post, it might be helpful to know that we consider the word privilege to mean 'to have an advantage in society by traits that one is born into or traits that one earns by experiences that they have access to'.  We believe in intersectionality; that you can be privileged in some aspects and also not privileged in other areas.  That not all privilege holds the same weight in every situation.

Our kids are white, physically-abled, mentally-abled, living in a comfortable socio-economic bracket, not hungry, not homeless, 'acceptably' religious (a socially approved religion and not too much/not too little in practice), beautiful (in terms of face symmetry), and loved & supported by an over abundance of family and friends - many of whom also meet some or most of the aforementioned characteristics.

They are lots of other things too that can't be quantified on a census form - like how our kids are kind and polite and funny and clever and good at making up knock knock jokes, and athletic, and great listeners, and really good at digging up worms....but for the sake of this post, I'm not talking about all those things.

All of those non-application form characteristics are things that I have too...says their very privileged Momma.  Things that a stranger can't discern from me when they meet me for the first time.  Things like I have a degree in Spanish and a minor in Diversity Studies.  Or that I first traveled abroad at the age of 16 without family to volunteer in Central America, that I have safely and comfortably lived in Brooklyn, NY (pop: 2,504,700) and in Punxsutawney, PA (pop: 5,934), or that in my life at any one time I've:  had three jobs at once, played collegiate volleyball, been given free food because 'my eyes are beautiful,' knowingly trespassed on private property and was not punished, volunteered at a hospital for fun, been featured on our local news station as a 'Kid You Should Know,' owned my first car at the age of 24, and taught as an adjunct professor to grad students.

I have had a beautiful, wonderful life.  And it's been due to hard work, goal setting, a big imagination, and never giving up.  But it would be an enormous lie and injustice to pretend like those were the only reasons why.

My beautiful life has also been contributed to the fact that I am white, physically and mentally-abled, middle class, straight, socially good looking, and have had the encouragement and incredible support of people that love me. Because of all these things, I have had blessed opportunities to basically do whatever the hell I've wanted.  Literally.  The reason this is called privilege is because I don't have to think about the traits I was born into (race, disabilities, illness, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, etc) before doing almost anything.  Granted, there were things that were more difficult because money is not indispensable and there were moments that felt uncomfortable simply because I'm a woman - but they weren't inaccessible or dangerous.

Brandon and I were both raised by parents who expected us to use our abilities and natural leadership to make a positive impact on people around us.  We were not only pushed to do great things for ourselves (both of us are first generation college grads), but also that we had a responsibility to be role models; to give back, to stand up for things that are right and good, and lead by example. This expectation is so deeply ingrained in us that we classify it as fundamental to the people we try to be today.

I say all this not to brag, but to be transparent.  Our privilege is something that we try to keep in focus on a regular basis.  So that when we read news articles, listen to stories, or view images that we remain vigilant to keep our own privileged perspective in check before passing judgments.

We want to continually remind ourselves that for us - the world sure looks easy to fix and judge from our lofty seats up here on the social ladder.  That our limited experience in unfairness and discrimination heavily taints the world in a rose-colored hue.  And to use this focus as a reminder to seek out ways to become better informed and understanding of the injustices and issues in which we have been blessed to have very limited direct experience.

As parents now, Brandon and I are doing our best to raise our kids to recognize their privilege as a responsibility to (at the very least) awareness to it.  It is not a pass for entitlement or permitted ignorance.

Because our kids were born into a life they can, we want to raise kids who stand up for others who are unable to or restricted from standing up for themselves.

Because our kids were born into a life that they can, we want to raise kids who speak up for those who live in fear of speaking out or those who are unable to speak loud enough for the people in power to hear.

We want to raise kids who look across the way and recognize themselves in others; to understand that a single thing that separates us from each other does not eliminate all the things that make us the same.

That the privilege that they were born into does not grant them a camera that only takes pictures from the pretty side of life, but rather one that has access to a panoramic view that can see the disparities in the world.  That this full picture will create a passion in them to bring the light into view for those that can't see it, and awareness of the dark to those ignorant to it.

So, how do we attempt teach our kids about privilege and the responsibility that comes with it?

1. We openly talk about differences.  It is natural for kids to try to make sense of the world by observing differences in the people and places around them.  We don't shh them when they make observations or have questions about differences; we talk about them and sometimes are even the ones that bring up the observation in the first place.  We try to be open with our kids about differences on all topics (things they can see, hear, or worry about).  Even when it feels awkward or unfamiliar (especially then?) We do our best to present the facts and give them a chance to voice their own thoughts on things as well.

2. We try to create a diverse world within our home and direct community.  We try to diversify the people, sounds, and experiences that they have access to through their main points of  daily contact, especially in toys, books, and television/media.  We make an effort to have books and toys in our home that represent people of all colors, languages, disabilities, and backgrounds. We want the inside of our home and circle to look like the world, not a bubble.

We also celebrate and learn about holidays that are both included and not included in our own heritage; we learn about our own background and family tree and try to hold onto traditions that our ancestors celebrated.  We try to be proud and grateful that we are American mutts.

3. We keep a focus on gratitude and kindness.  We don't want our kids to feel guilty for the things that they have access to in life because of the things they received from birth - but we do want them to be aware of it and grateful.  We want our kids to be aware of their advantages by giving them opportunities to learn about and lend a helping hand to situations that we are blessed to not have experience in our own lives.  We also do our best to raise our kids so that their knee jerk reaction is empathy and kindness to others - all others.

4. We give them opportunities to practice positive leadership.  We don't know what school and activities will bring into our lives yet in terms of our kids' place in the crowds, someday we may need to learn about how to approach the situation if our children ever become the targets of bullying. But we can do something right now and that is raise our kids so that they don't become the bullies.  We don't want to believe that our kids could, but we also know being in a position of power simply because you fit the mold for what society wants makes it easy to walk on the shoulders of other people. More so than that even, we also want to raise kids who will stand up in the face of bullying - so we try to give our kids opportunities to practice consent, offer help to those in need, and stand brave when if it is unpopular.

5. We try to live as role models in the way we act, talk, and make decisions with that responsibility in mind. We try to choose kindness in the way we speak and act.  We step outside of our own comfort zones to learn about and experience new things.  We approach topics and conflicts with an open-mind that there are various sides to every story - some of which we have no familiarity with due to the advantages we have in our life.  We talk, answer, and research any questions that our kids come to us with in the hopes of better understanding of how this world works and our place in it.

We are aware that many people (most people!!) are not nearly as privileged in all the ways that my very blessed family has been.  The thing with privilege is that it's easy to focus on the places in which you lack instead of recognizing and taking ownership of all the ways you may experience privilege; of the things that you maybe do not even know you take advantage of.

And we are conscious that some privilege you're born into and other privilege operates on a sliding scale and at any moment we could have an experience that could change our own family drastically (trauma, sickness, job loss, etc).  As those changes come (or don't) we plan and hope to continually grow in awareness, understanding, and to look for the opportunities in which we can use our instances of privilege as a platform to stand for those that don't have access to it.

It looks like an intense intentional way of raising our kids; like a lot of work.

...but that's only because we have the privilege of not thinking about it at all that makes it feel that way.

Some extra reading material:

How Privileged Are You?  (a buzzfeed quiz but will at least spark discussion and understanding of lot of different types of privilege)
How Taking a Buzzfeed Quiz taught me about Privilege (a reflection on the above quiz)
Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person
Black Moms Teach White Moms about The Talk (also linked above)
A Mother's Rules for Being Young, Black, and Male
A Mother's White Privilege (also linked above)
How to Talk to your Kids about White Privilege
My Kid would Never Do That (series from Dateline about bullying)


  1. What an awesome post! I must admit that, being on the other end of parenting, I taught most of this without conscious thought. I remember that the one thing I used to say to my kids, when they were disappointed or felt something wasn't fair, was always, "life isn't fair and not everything can be fixed. It's what you do next that's important." Both kids live in multi-cultural cities and seem to be doing okay. I wish I had read this 25 years ago!!! My kids were so blessed - mostly by the chance that they were born to DannyO and Melodye Joy.

    Your kids are so blessed to be born to Brandon and Tab!!

    Much love,

  2. tabitha you are such an amazing person!
    i love the tone of this post. it is so different and aptly suiting the very serious topic
    you both are amazing parents and i wish you could be replicated all across the Americas atleast :)