This column was originally published in May 2018.
On privilege: The other day, Pippa had this conversation with her mom.
Pippa: Mummy, what does pampered mean?
Pippa: Spoiled like an egg, or like Veruca Salt? (For the uninitiated, Veruca was the atrocious little rich girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
Jess: Like Veruca Salt.
Pippa: Her Mummy and Daddy gave her everything she asked for.
Jess: Yup. That’s right.
Pippa: If I were spoiled, I’d only ask for things I really, really, really wanted.
Jess: Like what?
Pippa: Like a servant.
Well, OK then. I’d say, life lesson learned, wouldn’t you?
To be fair, who among us hasn’t fantasized about having a personal servant? It’s really why I had kids in the first place. So far, that hasn’t worked out so well. But when our children start complaining about how hard it is to get good help these days, you have to wonder if our attempts to fill their every need are doing them a disservice.
Let’s be clear here, Pippa is no Veruca Salt. She’s well-versed in the virtues of thrift and self-reliance. She does her chores, wears hand-me-downs, and knows better than to waste electricity, water or food. But like most American kids, she has more material wealth and comfort than 90 percent of the world’s children. She lives a life of privilege, and mostly she takes it for granted. It’s easy to see the benefits of that privilege, but what are the costs?
I know — this seems like kind of a “First World Problem.” Boo-hoo, my child has everything they want — I’m afraid it might damage them. But as I look around me, and read the news every day, it’s clear that privilege is causing plenty of damage in the world, both to people who have it and the ones who don’t. One reason that damage is so hard to stop is that people who have privilege can’t even see it. It’s simply the air they breathe.
White people don’t know what it’s like to be stopped by the police just because they’re driving in a nice neighborhood. Men don’t know what it’s like to avoid the park at night for fear of being raped. Native English speakers don’t know what it’s like to show up sick and scared at an emergency room where no one speaks their language. And I have no idea what it’s like to put my kids to bed hungry because I had to choose between food and rent. All of that is understandable — none of us know what we just don’t know. But our ignorance has consequences.
Turn on cable news and it’s never long before some talking head claims that those who suffer most cause their own misfortune. They’re lazy. They were asking for it. They came here illegally. They brought it on themselves. And all the while, the thousands of unearned advantages, both big and small, that helped lift that speaker to their position go unmentioned and unseen. This pattern plays out again and again all around us: when people are hired, when people are arrested, when laws are made, and when votes are cast. It sets the trajectory of our lives.
So if our children are lucky enough to enjoy privilege, how do we neutralize its toxic effects? How do we fend off a sense of entitlement, a loss of empathy, and a lack of resilience that comes when everything is handed to them on a silver platter? One thing we can do is make the air around them visible. We can teach them to see their privilege.
At times, this might feel clumsy or contrived — like when our mothers told us: “The starving children in Africa would give anything for your broccoli!” But that doesn’t mean we stop talking about it. And when we can, we should do more than talk the talk, we should walk the walk — and ask our kids to walk it with us.
Take them to volunteer at a food bank. Join Habitat for Humanity and build houses for the homeless. Donate gifts to a needy family during the holidays. Invite your kids to give a small portion of the resources they’ve enjoyed to others who make do with less.
After that conversation with Pippa, Jess was appalled, but I wasn’t too worried. Seven-year-olds are notoriously susceptible to bling, and Pippa is no exception. Luckily, she’s generous, kindhearted, and surrounded by compassionate, ethical adults. She’s going to be fine. Still, we have some work to do.
We won’t stop giving her most of what she wants and all of what she needs. We won’t stop worrying about her future, or helping her succeed when we can. We won’t try to undo the privilege she’s so fortunate to have. But we will shine a light on it, so she recognizes it for what it really is:
A stroke of luck.
Jeff Lee is spoiled rotten by the people he loves in Seattle
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