How do I teach privilege to my able-bodied, white male children?

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How do I teach privilege to my able-bodied, white male children?
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My partner and I recently welcomed our miracle twin newborns to the world and we’re thrilled! But also terrified. Somehow we managed to bring two more blond-haired, blue-eyed, males into our rural Midwest society (we are both of primarily European ancestry, but we never expected this!).

We had always planned to teach our children to value diversity and to challenge the system of privilege, but now we’re looking at raising children who are the textbook image of privilege. Help! How can we do parenting right?

I love that you're concerned about how to teach privilege to your children because that's step one. But then steps two through one million are yet to come. You have to understand all the facets of privilege yourself, include it in your daily lives, and make sure you're including diverse media to your kids all the time. It's HARD. But I can tell you're ready to take it on head-first, and that's awesome. I pulled some reader comments from this post since it's so relevant. Then I'll talk about a few resources that will help…

Understand it well yourself first

Privilege is expansive and nuanced and teaching it to someone else is HARD. Make sure you're tapping into sources like Resource Generation which helps young people learn more about wealth and class privilege. Be aware of ALL of the different kinds of privilege, be they race and class-based, weight and ability-based, gender and LGBTQ-based, and more. Find some great books to help you understand it yourself and pass that knowledge along.

Here are some suggestions:

The National Civil Rights Museum’s Privilege Aptitude Test can help start the conversation about what it means to have privilege based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, or veteran status.

Harvard University’s Implicit Bias help you examine your own beliefs and see where knowledge deficits may exist.

Use child-friendly stories for explanation

Explaining privilege is a complex thing for children and has to be reinforced constantly. Incorporating stories of privilege, like The Girl with the Brown Crayon: How Childen Use Stories to Shape Their Lives, Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege, can help. Here's an excerpt from Of Dogs and Lizards…

Imagine, if you will, a small house, built someplace cool-ish but not cold, perhaps somewhere in Ohio, and inhabited by a dog and a lizard. The dog is a big dog, something shaggy and nordic, like a Husky or Lapphund — a sled dog, built for the snow. The lizard is small, a little gecko best adapted to living in a muggy rainforest somewhere. Neither have ever lived anywhere else, nor met any other creature; for the purposes of this exercise, this small house is the entirety of their universe.

The dog, much as you might expect, turns on the air conditioning. Really cranks it up, all the time — this dog was bred for hunting moose on the tundra, even the winter here in Ohio is a little warm for his taste. If he can get the house to fifty (that’s ten C, for all you weirdo metric users out there), he’s almost happy.

The gecko can’t do much to control the temperature — she’s got tiny little fingers, she can’t really work the thermostat or turn the dials on the A/C. Sometimes, when there’s an incandescent light nearby, she can curl up near it and pick up some heat that way, but for the most part, most of the time, she just has to live with what the dog chooses. This is, of course, much too cold for her — she’s a gecko. Not only does she have no fur, she’s cold-blooded! The temperature makes her sluggish and sick, and it permeates her entire universe. Maybe here and there she can find small spaces of warmth, but if she ever wants to actually do anything, to eat or watch TV or talk to the dog, she has to move through the cold house.

Read the rest here.

Reader Heather introduced this example:

Here's a privilege test: Make them first graders. Give them coloring books and crayons, but make them unequal in the same ways that our society makes people unequal, so base it on race, ability, weight, perceived socioeconomic status, etc. To them it just looks like they got handed some coloring books and crayons, but halfway through their page you start asking questions like, "Is this the kind of coloring book and crayons you had growing up?" "Why did I give you the Crayolas and you the dollar store crayons?" "Why did you get the brand new book and she got the one someone else has ripped up and scribbled in?"

Now ask them how their quality of crayons and coloring book relates to the car they drive, the house they live in, and the clothes they wear. Ask them how they would feel if they walked onto a store (car lot) and the salesperson immediately started pushing the scribbled-in generic coloring book with the dollar-store 8-box of crayons, when they can afford a 200-pack of Crayolas and the Disney princesses coloring book? Ask how they would feel if you had only handed the girls pink crayons and the boys blue ones?

Include lessons everywhere, all the time

Around age three, my daughter wondered why the bank was closed. I said it was Martin Luther King Day. She asked who MLK was, and why the bank was closed on his day. My daughter is a white person, and we come from a mixed race family. So I took some family photos off the wall and explained which of us were white, which were brown, and which were black. And I explained that when I go out in the world, I'm treated differently than Uncle is, because of the perceived colors of our skins, and that MLK worked to create more fairness for me and Uncle.

Another example: kids can see homeless people in ways adults don't. My daughter has long had questions about homeless people. I've told her that some people have illnesses or problems that makes it very hard for them to keep jobs that will help them pay for their homes. Putting it this way gives me an opportunity to talk with her about her own privileges (economic, disability, and health, among others). As she's gotten older I've expanded on that discussion…

I guess what I'm trying to say is, from my perspective there are eight bazillion opportunities to talk with children about privilege in the courses of their lifetimes. My tactic has just been to take those opportunities and be as straightforward as I can as they arise. My kid doesn't feel "guilty" — but she does have awareness that she has privileges in our society that she didn't earn, and which aren't fair, and which she has a responsibility to both acknowledge and work to mitigate. – Courtney

This makes me think of one of the ways we're planning on approaching the whole Santa thing when my daughter is old enough for the Santa thing (she's only 1).

So to allow her the whole "magic of Santa" thing, but keep things in perspective, we're going to let her know that Santa tells parents the things that kids ask for, but that sometimes, parents can't always afford to get them everything on their wish list; and, that this is why for each Christmas present she receives from her parents via the list she gave to Santa, she has to pick one of her used toys/clothes/etc. to donate and share with another boy or girl who may have asked Santa for that item, but whose parents couldn't afford to give it to them. – Lindsay

Fill their minds with diverse media

Make a conscious effort to read, watch, and absorb diverse media. Here are some great lists to get you started:

And here are some excellent books to include in your kids' reading list:

Even more examples for all kinds of privilege can be found here!

More resources for understanding privilege:

What have YOU done to teach privilege to your kids?

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've found myself asking this question since our 10-month-old boy was born last year. We're a two-mom family, but we're also immensely privileged. In some ways I'm finding it even harder to wrap my brain around this because my kid DOES have two moms – I was prepared to raise a radical girl, but not a radical boy. I'm not sure how to teach him about privilege – most especially of the male kind – because my wife and I don't have it… We can't even imagine what it looks like (the male part – I am trying to understand and be always aware of the cisgender, white, etc. privilege). All of this is so great, and gives me ideas and places to return when we falter. May we raise aware, kind, beautiful, radical souls!

    3 agree
  2. Just as an aside- I hate the idea that for Santa to give you a new toy, you have to give an used one away. What we do is try to buy a new one so we can help Santa out and donate them.

    6 agree
    • I like that idea, but please realize that not everyone can afford new. My kids have gotten a combo of new & used (bought at 2nd hand & Goodwill stores) as gifts their entire life. They appreciate both. I appreciate the used items because I can actually afford to give my now teenage kids name-brand items that they like. On really tough years, it meant they got gifts, even if they were used.

    • Money isn't tight for me but I still get my sons second hand toys because it's more environmentally friendly and why would I pay £100 for a new octopod when I could get an octopod, two gups and loads of figures and creatures for £50 including postage and packing second hand off EBay and help another parent have a clear out without adding to landfill. We also tend to buy most of our clothes, furniture and books secondhand, to the extent that our credit card nearly got stopped because all the PayPal transactions triggered their fraud detecting algorithm.

  3. In a lot of ways, I think the opportunities will present themselves if you don't shy away from uncomfortable conversations. When my kiddo asked why that boy was laying on the sidewalk, we had the talk about how some people don't have places to live, and we're really lucky that we do. When she saw a reference to residential schools, I explained how here in Canada we used to take kids away from their parents to places where people hurt them, just because they were indigenous people. There are tons of injustices in the world which kids will likely bring up, because they haven't learned to not notice them yet. If you tell them the basic truth about this stuff, they will be incensed by the unfairness.Obviously these talks are pretty basic, and miss a lot of the nuance of privilege, but should hopefully set the stage for later conversations as they are able to understand more complicated topics and reflect on themselves a bit more. I think if this is a concern on your radar as you raise new little citizens of the world, you'll do a great job. Good luck!

    1 agrees
  4. One more thing: don't assume that your kids *are* "the textbook image of privilege". They might grow up to be straight cis men, but it's way too soon to be sure that they will. Assume that they might identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, or no gender at all, or that their gender identity might be fluid. Assume that they might one day be attracted to people of their own gender, or people of multiple genders, or not experience attraction at all. Work these assumptions into the way you parent them, and they'll grow up knowing that all these options exist and all are equally valid.

    10 agree

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