Carrie Southworth, Twigtale's founder, just published an excellent essay on talking to her children about economic privilege and instilling the values of giving and receiving. Part of Carrie's childhood was spent in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world. She describes how her time there expanded her awareness of economic disparity and compels her to make sure her daughters understand how their lives in West L.A. differ from the lives of many other children. You can read her essay here.
We think this is an important topic and we wanted to get more insight from parents who have similar discussions with their children. Today we're featuring feedback from Nishad Chande, co-founder of Twigtale; Lara Hoffman, Deputy Federal Public Defender; Catherine Connors, writer, marketing strategist and author of herbadmother.com; and Sitinee Sheffert, founder of Giving Artfully and Giving Artfully Kids.
Each brought a unique perspective to the conversation and we're thrilled to share it with you!
1. Do you talk to your kids about economic privilege? If so, please tell us about the conversation (e.g, did it/does it come out casually? Did something prompt it? How young were your kids?)
My wife and I have an on-going talk about it with our son. We discuss wants vs. needs. If he wants a toy, we tell him to put it on his Christmas or birthday list. We talk about children who don't have toys and those who are not as fortunate. Sometimes it's a difficult concept to explain - he would ask "Why don't we buy them some toys?" We discuss why it's not that simple and he understands that more as he gets older.
Because of this rule, by February our son often has a lengthy Christmas list for the next year...
Los Angeles is a city where many kids grow up with great socio-economic privilege, while many other families struggle each day. But their struggle is frequently not visible. So when we talk with our son about the great disparity in wealth in our city, it's not clear that he really understands what we mean. When a socio-economic issue is visible (ie: homelessness) we try to talk to our son about it and incorporate conversations about fairness as well as what concrete ideas he might have to help. We plan to have more complex discussions as he gets older and can better understand them.
We do. I want to say that we've been talking about it for forever, but I think that that conversation really took fullest shape in our family after I returned from my first trip to Africa (a service/media trip with the United Nations Global Fund, to Lesotho to support their Born HIV Free campaign during 2010 UN voting on the Millennium Development Goals.) That whole trip for me was a difficult exercise in grappling with my own privilege and I came back determined to parent differently because it. Emilia and Jasper were only 4 and 2 at the time, but that's when they started hearing me go on about how very fortunate they were, how very privileged. It's also when we started talking about what it means to have too much, and why it's important to give and to share. (It's also when I started to become a parenting cliche: 'eat your dinner there are starving children in Africa!')
We regularly talk to our kids about the value of money. Especially at their age (8,7,5), they often use the word "need" vs "want" (I need a new toy, I need new shoes, I need a new soccer ball, etc). When this happens, we we talk to them about how they need to be grateful for the things that they already have and that there are many children out there that are not as lucky. When the children were younger, there was a natural sense of compassion and wanting to help others. As they grew older, their knowledge of the world has grown leading them to want more "things". So , we find ourselves that we need to continue reinforcing the value of money and how we have worked hard for to be able to afford our children a lifestyle that provides them a good home and education.
2. How do you talk to your kids about the values of giving and receiving, of sharing and giving back and the like?
When a friend comes to the house, we have our son give away a toy he no longer plays with. It helps him understand the value of letting go of what he no longer uses so someone else can enjoy it. It's also a great way to make sure he doesn't accumulate too many toys that have to be stored and picked up.
Nishad is very generous, and it was his idea for our son to give a toy away to friends and their younger siblings after play dates. By doing so, our son has learned to be generous to his friends. But I don't know if it's the best to associate play dates with having to give toys away... I like it most when our son volunteers to do it.
We also try to set an example of giving back through modeling our own behavior. However, our son thinks I have hoarding tendencies so I could clearly improve in this area!
We've always put it in the context of their privilege, for the most part. We have - they have - more than we need. They have more food than they need, more toys than they need, more everything than they need. Even if it's not massive amounts of any given thing, it's still much, much more than so many other families and children have. And so it's important for them to mindful of that, and to always be thinking about what they can be doing to right the balance, even in day-to-day moments. It doesn't need to always be a conversation about sending your allowance to charity - small acts of sharing and generosity between each other and with their friends and other people that they meet, that contributes to the stock of caring in the world, and it matters.
We have been very fortunate that our children have been exposed to the concept of giving from not just us but their school and community. At home, I feel fortunate that my children have been able to watch the growth of my business where they have helped make some of the crafts for our charity crafting after-school program. They have really grasped the idea that the time and effort of something they are making with their own hands is helping somebody else. Sharing and giving is a regular family discussion topic. At dinner, we ask the children what they did that day to help someone.
We also try to lead by example by showing compassion for other in need. For example, during the cold winter months, we have a stash of hand warmers in our car that we can give to those who are asking for help. Just the other day, my son and I were walking to the library and a mom and her two children were asking for any kind of help. I told my son, let's go and buy her a loaf or two of bread from the bakery and had him give it to the woman and her children. Afterwards, the joy he felt knowing he had helped a family was priceless. He realized that just giving a little could mean so much to someone else.
3. Can you tell us about a time when discussing this topic with your child was particularly meaningful (e.g. challenging, heartfelt, funny)?
We used to tell our son that our credit card only worked at grocery stores and it wouldn't work for toys. He believed us for a while, but he was becoming skeptical just before his 5th birthday. Right around that time, we took him on a Disney cruise. We were heading to a pirate party and he found a toy dagger on the ground. He was thrilled, but then we heard a kid say "I lost my dagger" from a few flights of stairs above us. My son was adamant we return it. I was so proud of him and I wanted to demonstrate that he would be rewarded for kind behavior, so I told him I was going to buy him the same toy.
As we were heading toward the store, I realized I was going to have to explain why my credit card suddenly worked. We got to the register and, straight faced, I told the clerk about the thoughtfulness my son had shown and asked if there was any way he could accept my credit card that usually only worked at grocery stores. Thankfully, this was a Disney cruise. The clerk empathetically said yes, he could indeed make an exception this time.
My son was ecstatic, but his doubts about the limits of our credit card were not assuaged. Within six months, he didn't believe it at all.
One evening we were having dinner and the kids were complaining relentlessly about their food (they didn't like it, it wasn't what they wanted, why do they have to eat broccoli, etc). There were these heaps of food - good food, delicious food - sitting on their plates uneaten while they whined and moaned about being hungry and I just kind of lost my temper. I went and got my iPad and did a Google image search for 'starving children' (I know that this was maybe not one of my best parenting moments) and put it in front of them and started scrolling. You know the types of images you'll find in such a search - haunted, skeletal children, empty bowls, flies - I showed them all. 'THIS is what it looks like to be really hungry. YOU are not hungry. YOU are just complaining. You DO NOT WANT TO KNOW what hunger really is.' And so on (god, I was being terrible.)
They watched it all with really big eyes, and then Emilia started asking questions. Why do they not have food, why they can't they get food, etc. So we started talking, basically, about global economic development and food insecurity and poverty (my inner former political scientist emerged full force and replaced the mother, for better or for worse) and there was a lot of nodding and then more questions and then finally she asked to be excused for a few minutes. When she returned (more than few minutes later), she had a hand-drawn story book, stapled down the middle, that she had titled SAVE THE SKINNY PEOPLE, and in which she had outlined her plans for getting food to 'the skinny people' (this involved a complex network of airplanes and Target executives - suffice to say that it involved a handover of the entirety of Target's product stock to the world's poor.) So, my 'shock and awe' lecture worked, I guess? There was still more conversation to be had about why economic redistribution is so difficult, but those are hard conversations to have with college students, never mind small children. At least she saw the importance of looking for solutions - if I accomplished nothing else with my outburst, that was something.
One of the best memories about teaching the children about giving and helping others was Halloween 2012, just after Hurricane Sandy. We had talked to the children about the hurricane and they wanted do something to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. We suggested that they could collect money and we can give it to the Red Cross. They decided that Halloween would be a great day since many people would be walking around the neighborhood. So, on a cold Halloween Day, my two oldest kids (ages 6 and 4) sat in front of our house and collected money instead of trick-or treating. They collected over $40 that they proudly brought to the Red Cross themselves.
More from our contributors
Read Lara Hoffman's essays Part One - The Story Changes. Love Remains the Same and Part Two - The Story Changes. Love Remains the Same.