In a rapidly-changing world, the list of things that we, as parents, have to do to ensure our kids have the best possible chance at success can seem never-ending. Fortunately, a lot of the old assumptions about what moms “must” do are dying, as we realize that they’re outdated, unnecessary, or just don’t fit our particular, unique style of parenting. That frees us up to focus on what really matters. As a Black mom in a multiracial, blended family, I’m here to tell you that one of the things that really matters, is teaching our kids about their privilege.
Our children are growing up in a society that uses whiteness to exclude non-white people from the full rights of citizenship, while the majority of their peers, if not they themselves, are children of color. (Still, our white-dominated media fails to understand how racist it is to refer to people of color as "minorities." Argh.) Income inequality is at its highest levels since right before the Great Depression. Our society still privileges men and boys over women and girls, even though a little more than half of our society will be assigned female at birth. Many of our children's peers will also go on to recognize that the gender they were assigned at birth is different from the gender they identify with. Just under four percent of American adults self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Nearly one percent are Muslim in an age of rampant Islamophobia, while around 29 percent identify with Islam or other stigmatized religions, or no religion at all. Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability, which limits their full participation in public life because the rest of society has failed to fully accommodate them.
With so many intersecting and overlapping identities regarding race, color, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion/belief status, and more, virtually all of our children have aspects of their identities that will give them privilege, and others that place them at a disadvantage. The few who don’t, will be surrounded by those who do. Failing to teach our children about these undeniable realities means putting them at a huge disadvantage when it comes to forming satisfying, mutually respectful relationships and behaving ethically in society. If we want them to live their best lives and be their best selves, as all good parents do, it’s on us to not only make sure they know what it takes to overcome any disadvantages, but that they also know how to manage their advantages. Here are just a few reasons why:
It Helps Their Social Skills
At its core, being able to understand how privilege works is about being able to understand that other people see and experience things very differently from how you see and experience them. It’s about being able to see and understand the world from other people’s perspectives, which is a crucial part of developing empathy and other important social skills. The basic lessons of learning about privilege help children to become better listeners, to think before acting, and to consider the impact of their actions on others. These are crucial lessons all kids need to learn.
It’s A Basic Part Of Living In A Diverse Society
Oppression doesn’t just happen to the oppressed. While oppression is systemic, it requires the action (or often, inaction) of ordinary people mindlessly repeating the mistakes of the past. By teaching kids about their privilege, we help them understand the imbalances in power that permeate society, so that they can choose to act mindfully in ways that correct those imbalances. In doing so, we help them navigate living in a diverse society with less fear or discomfort, while causing less harm to others around them.
Learning Is Easier Than Unlearning
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had the experience of growing up thinking the world was one way, then having a rude, painful awakening sometime late in your adolescence or well into adulthood. Upon awakening, you then had to (and probably continue to) unlearn a whole bunch of oppressive crap that, in addition to making society less free, makes it harder for you to form satisfying relationships and connect with other people, especially across lines of difference.
Indeed, if you’re someone who’s still defensive about or skeptical of the very concept of privilege, you’ve probably had a number of painful, shame-filled moments where you felt like your whole idea of who you are as a person was turned on its head, and you’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. We can spare the next generation some of that pain and hardship, by helping them learn what’s really going on, right from the beginning.
Learning At Home Is Less Risky
Having tough conversations with people who love them unconditionally is far less scary than having those same high-stakes conversations with people who don’t know them and easily decide that they’re not worth the effort, and exclude them from friendship, organizational membership, and so forth. Presenting issues like privilege in a factual way at home is a lot easier on kids than leaving them to figure those things out for themselves when they’re older, have more misconceptions to overcome, and are less protected from the consequences of their interpersonal missteps and mistakes.
Dismantling Oppression Is Everyone’s Responsibility
Oppression is not just a thing that happens, beyond our control, like the weather. Oppression is the result of people’s decisions. It was created by people, and continues whenever people either intentionally discriminate against others, or refuse to learn how to actively oppose it. When people with privilege fail to understand their privilege and choose different ways of acting in society, they perpetuate injustice. It’s not up to some superhero to come and save the world from injustice, nor is it the responsibility of the oppressed to teach their oppressors to recognize their full humanity. It is up to ordinary people with privilege, parents very much included, to teach their children (and themselves) to see the value and dignity in every person, and to treat all people as they deserve to be treated.
Kids Need To Understand How Society Functions
Kids see social injustice on a daily basis. They witness, experience, and/or engage in stereotyping and discrimination all the time. But when they don’t have trusted adults to help them identify, name, and unpack these often uncomfortable and scary phenomena, they accept them as the natural order of things. That’s scary for all kids. It’s dangerous for kids who belong to oppressed groups, because they learn that they are less worthy, and that it’s their lot in life to be mistreated. It’s also dangerous for kids who are on the privileged side of things, because they learn that it’s OK to mistreat other people who are different from themselves. No good parent wants to raise kids to believe it’s OK to mistreat people, yet that’s exactly what parents do when they fail to teach them about their privilege.
Furthermore, parents whose children have less privilege are more likely to raise them to understand injustice and stand up for themselves. Failing to teach kids with privilege that they have to be more conscientious about choosing how to act, puts them in a position where they may be blindsided by their peers, who know better, and who won’t stand for unjust treatment. Don't want your son to get kicked in the balls for snapping a girl's bra strap? Proactively teach him to treat girls and women with respect before he gets socialized into misogyny.
When we, as adults, tell kids the truth about hard things in the world, we teach them that they can trust us, that we believe they can deal with hard things, and that they have a role to play in making the world a better place. That makes the world a far less scary place to live in, for them and for all of us, and frees us to focus our energy on leading fuller, happier lives, while simultaneously helping others do the same.