How to Talk to Kids About Privilege
3 Ways to Stop Your Kids' Privileged Thinking
As a Pakistani-American mom, Aila Malik, the author of Mommy, Am I American?, knows how important it is to discuss the concept of privilege with kids. Between traveling the world with her family for a year and her work in the nonprofit sector, Aila is determined to help her kids grow into compassionate and empathetic adults, which begins with a fundamental understanding of how fortunate they are.
"Privilege can be defined as a benefit that we have or immunity from hardship. There are struggles that other people have because of their ethnicity, gender, or economic class," Aila told POPSUGAR. "When we make statements that dismiss the luck and blessings that we have, it makes it seem as though we've specifically done something to earn our privilege. It's having the luxury or the choice of deciding how hard to work. When privilege goes unchecked, it can lead to a lot of self-importance and a lack of humility."
Although parents may not regularly discuss the concept of privilege with their children, it's an important practice to adopt. "Combating privileged thinking is really about being constantly aware of what you have and bringing modeling, discussion, and awareness to the conversation, specifically with kids in middle school and high school," she said.
Ahead, read Aila's three tips for making the topic of privilege a routine part of your family's conversation.
1. Show Gratitude as a Family
Although it's fairly easy to get consumed with busy schedules and long to-do lists, regularly expressing gratitude as a family is an important first step. "We're trying to teach kids about privilege, empathy, and humility, and yet the irony of it all is you have to be incredibly privileged to be able to do that," Aila explained. According to her, children with very little can still learn to express gratitude, but being able to routinely speak with kids about the blessings they have is a privilege in and of itself.
An easy way to recognize what you have is to regularly express thanks over things your family might take for granted. Examples of this might include being able to order delivery, having a home that's equipped with internet, or even owning a lot of books.
"We try to get excited over little things," Aila said. "We're like, 'Look how great and amazing these things are.' We constantly acknowledge our gratitude and luck for what we have. Being thankful for what you have is so important." In addition to frequent conversations, Aila suggests starting a gratitude jar as a family, sending a letter to someone you love and support, or encouraging older children to write in a gratitude journal, which may also benefit their mental health.
2. Acknowledge the People Who Came Before Them
Every family has its own story, and it always starts with the generations that came before. Did your children's grandparents immigrate here? Escape a part of the world that was experiencing political unrest or religious strife? Or perhaps your past family members worked in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Regardless, it's important to make your kids aware of what their ancestors had to sacrifice.
"Help kids map out what had to be true for them to be so lucky. It's almost always about something more than simply working hard or winning a fluke lottery," Aila said. "It's usually because of a family member's kindness, hard work, or activism that opened up the luxury of choice or feelings of safety kids experience today."
"Recognition keeps us humble, which is the ingredient that is critical to meaningful kindness."
She continued, noting that sharing your family's history with your kids will help them appreciate where they came from. "The point is that if kids can see — and feel grateful for — the sacrifices that others made, then they begin to recognize and name the 'giants' on whose shoulders they now stand," she said. "This recognition keeps us humble, which is the ingredient that is critical to meaningful kindness."
It's also worth mentioning that children's ancestors who lived so long ago may have not been able to ever afford a single vacation — or a luxury equivalent to an iPhone — a good reminder for kiddos today. "My mom used to say, 'Children are not spoiled because they have lots of things, they are spoiled when they have lots of things and they don't appreciate their blessings in having them.'"
3. Consistently Work to Foster Senses of Empathy and Activism
Aila defines empathy as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another" and using "the recognition of our own privilege to motivate us to help others." According to her, teaching kids to be empathetic begins at home. "We must model and instill the core value that we are all interconnected," she explained. "Our ability to care for others and our planet helps us to live a safer, healthier, and more fulfilled life."
Of course, helping kids grasp the concept of empathy may require a little legwork. Here are some activities Aila recommends doing at home with the family:
- "Debrief 'big feelings' so that they can remember what it feels like to be stretched and stressed. Talking about the feelings can sometimes help them to identify those moments in other people.
- Read a book or watch a movie together and discuss the main character's display (or lack) of empathy or care for others.
- When young kids make a mistake, help them recognize and address the impact their actions may have caused by asking questions like: How do you think [insert person's name] felt when [state the mistake]? How would it feel if someone made the same mistake at your expense? Do you have any ideas to help the person who was impacted by your mistake?
"The more we amplify diverse voices, the more we challenge and redefine societal norms that perpetuate a culture of implicit bias."
Fostering a good sense of empathy can, in turn, make kids naturally more passionate about issues plaguing the community, leading to activism. "Actions can range from spreading awareness to raising funds for an organization that supports the change your child wants to make," Aila said. "Facilitate your child's ability to amplify his or her voice on particular issues through creative art or another form of expression. The more we amplify diverse voices, the more we challenge and redefine societal norms that perpetuate a culture of implicit bias."
Parents can help their children become more active in the community by engaging in the following activities:
- Start an art gallery wall in your home and showcase your child's expression around a community issue.
- Have your child make up a story about community activism, kindness, or inclusion, and tape it to the fridge.
- Submit your children's poetry, reflections, or other expressions on issues they care about to local media outlets.
- Create "issue jars" where family members can catch media messages and bias. (An example of this would be having your kids note each time they see gender stereotypes portrayed in a book, in a magazine, or on social media).
It's never too late to start talking about privilege with your family. By broaching these important subjects with children, it can only make them more appreciative and introspective going forward.