My little cottage-style house is a solid middle-class house. It’s cute and cozy but honestly pretty outdated. I moved into it from a much larger, freshly remodeled brick colonial, the kind that, as a kid, I would try to peek in the windows when my parents would drive by at night. What kind of life do those people live? I had no idea. I grew up with dirty walls, a toilet that rarely flushed, and a roach infestation.
Then I grew up and married someone who was financially secure. When you live with privilege, you can hire someone to care for your lawn, thinking it’s the only sensible way to do things because why on earth would anyone waste all those hours doing it themselves? You can buy exclusively organic food and say it’s “worth it even though it’s expensive” and vaguely assume it’s a sacrifice anyone could make if they really cared about their family’s health. You can afford to turn down the AC because you feel a tad sweaty.
It is a fact that life is more comfortable when you have money. Everything feels cleaner somehow, because everything is newer. And it’s prettier. The electrical wires are underground instead of an eyesore hanging over the streets. There are no ditches because the sewer system is underground. Even the couches and beds and pillows are more comfortable. Goose down comforters and high thread count sheets. The ceilings are higher. The clothes newer and made of more expensive fabric. The internet is faster. The cars are more reliable, with leather-smelling interiors and low mileage. And of course, when you have money, you get premium healthcare. If someone is sick, with anything at all, it’s no problem to go to the doctor.
Imagine being a child born into this kind of wealth, never knowing any different. This is how many of our friends’ kids are. The only thing they know is privilege. Their world is always clean and shiny, the food organic and fresh, the clothes crisp and brand name, the Christmases huge, and the vacations lavish. So when my daughter’s best friend first walked into my new house, she literally didn’t know what to think. She honestly seemed kind of appalled.
Keep in mind, my house is humble but it’s more than adequate for my kids and me. It’s solidly built and clean as a whistle thanks to my many days of scrubbing. Not that there would be anything wrong with my house being even more humble than it is. My point is, a decent, clean house that happened to be smaller and older than what this kid was used to positively flummoxed her. Her manners went right out the window I had just opened to let in the breeze.
“Um … it smells funny in here. It smells … old. Are you going to change the floors?” (The floors are hardwood, not in horrible condition but definitely not new.)
My daughter handled it with grace, though her face turned red. She was embarrassed. The two of them went to the backyard to climb the gorgeous old oak tree and the rest of the afternoon went fine. Later that evening, my daughter asked if we could burn candles “to make the house smell better.”
Since I grew up poor, even though my two girls were born into a family privileged with money, I always made it a point to remind them, to show them, that our lifestyle is not the norm. That living in this kind of comfort is not something they earned, nor is it something they are entitled to. Their father got here with a mix of loads of support from his family, hard work, and good timing. But many other people work just as hard and, due to reasons beyond their control, can’t accumulate the kind of financial stability we did.
We have family who lives far more modestly than we did, especially on my side. Hard-working people who lacked the support or education or physical health to afford more than the most basic necessities. So for my kids, it didn’t make any difference that their new house with mom was modest. They didn’t bat an eye at the difference between their dad’s new house and mine. They love his larger modern house and they love my cozy old cottage. He has a hot tub and I have a climbing tree. The girls are truly content in both places.
But my daughter’s friend, who comes from a family who preaches kindness and encourages education, clearly had no idea how to behave in a house that wasn’t solidly in the top 1% of houses. I’m trying not to let this anger me, but honestly I do feel angry. And sad. My daughter’s friend is a good kid. But she has no idea, none whatsoever, how immensely privileged she is. Seeing that interaction between my daughter and her friend made me think of all the many ways a person can have immense privilege, be completely oblivious to it, and make others feel like shit simply due to their own lack of awareness.
And so I want to implore parents, but especially well-off parents and especially white parents, to teach their kids about their privilege. Economic privilege for sure, but we need to teach our kids about all kinds of privilege. When it comes to economic privilege, it’s hard to explain to a little kid that they are living in the lap of luxury when they don’t have anything to compare it to. My kids have been to the homes of family members who struggle financially, a couple who have illnesses that prevent them from being able to maintain their homes. I was able to explain to my kids long ago that everyone lives differently and not everyone has the financial means or physical ability to live the lifestyle they’ve been accustomed to. My daughter’s friend was born into wealth and has never known anything other than wealth. It was pretty jarring to watch her little face trying to compute our middle class home.
If we want to make sure we raise kind, accepting citizens, the best thing we can do is expose our kids to all different types of people. Befriend people of different education and income levels, from different ethnic backgrounds, different belief systems, and from the LGBTQ+ community. Obviously don’t tokenize anyone from a marginalized group, these friendships should be sincere, but do intentionally befriend the mom at school who doesn’t look like every other mom from your homogenous group. Don’t leave her out because you think she might not “fit in.”
Also important: read books and watch movies with your kids that celebrate all types of diversity. You may live in an area that lacks diversity, and this might be the best way to help your kids branch out from their day-to-day bubble. But, even if you do live in an area with diversity, you should still be reading books and watching movies that celebrate different kinds of people. Acceptance without a foundation of knowledge is a shallow acceptance.
Most importantly, we need to explicitly tell our kids that we should never use language that could make another person feel bad about something that is out of their control. Not their social status, not their lack of wealth, not their weight, not their gender or sexuality or race. If my daughter’s friend had been taught these lessons, maybe she wouldn’t have said those things that made my daughter feel so small.