Babble is partnering with Twigtale to help parents navigate through difficult childhood transitions. This month, Twigtale co-founder Carrie Southworth discusses how she teaches her daughters about privilege and the less fortunate.
“Mommy I NEED that Dora the Explorer bubble wand!”
Of course you do. Of course you need that bubble wand RIGHT. NOW.
It takes all my restraint not to launch into a lecture on privilege right there in the toy aisle of Target. A lecture on how lucky my 5-year-old daughter is and how there’s children starving in Africa, who don’t need bubble wands. They need food and healthcare and shelter.
It often takes new friends by surprise when I talk about my childhood in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. With my blonde highlights and yoga pants, I look like the typical west L.A. mom. But when I was 11, my father’s job at the World Bank moved my family from the suburbs of Virginia to the coast of East Africa for four years. Looking back, it is like my life hinged on that moment. A door opened, and the rest of my life beckoned.
As I sit here at my desk typing, I smile at the memory of Tanzanian sunsets, the guttural songs of the Masai warriors, the smell of roasting cassava from the street vendors. I was exposed to numerous cultures at the international school I attended — Americans made up less than 2% of the children there. I learned to swear in Norwegian, count to ten in Dutch, and ate Indian samosas at snack time.
But mostly what I learned was how very lucky I was.
Tanzania is one of the poorest nations in the world. Children walked barefoot down the dirt paths we called roads. The shadow of illnesses such as malaria, cholera, and AIDS shrouded any prospect of a long, healthy life for most. As we drove into the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, we saw starving babies with distended bellies. Yes, the people you saw on TV, the ones who felt a world away from you? They were my neighbors. And they taught me a swift lesson in what povertyreally looks like, how privileged I was not to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I would even live long enough to see it.
Memories like that come rushing back to me as I stand in the aisle at Target, looking into the eyes of my 5-year-old. How do I teach her and my 2-year-old daughter these lessons without them having lived through it? How do I not spoil them? How do I raise them to be understanding and compassionate to those less fortunate?
I don’t know that I have the answers. After all, I am not an expert and this is a difficult task. But here are some rules I strive to follow:
I emphasize the difference between needs and wants.
First, I try to teach my children what they need. They need love and food and clothing and shelter and medical care. They need me to support them and smother them in hugs. They need me to really, truly hear their feelings and their words. But they do not need anything from the candy aisle of the grocery store. And they certainly do not need yet another Minions toy.
Those are things they want — and I let them know the difference by gently correcting them:
Mommy, I NEED that Dora the Explorer bubble wand!
I hear you, Savannah. You really want that Dora bubble wand.
There’s no shaming or lectures, I just try to guide them.
I reserve gifts for birthdays and Christmas.
We all have wants and wishes, but unless it is a necessity or something that is going to further my child’s development or learning (e.g. art supplies or a balance bike to work on those gross motor skills), I try not to buy things on-demand. I am not heartless and there are times when I make an exception, but this is a rule I try to stick to. If my kids want something, I remind them to put it on their birthday or Christmas list. I even offer to take a photo of it on my phone so we can remember later. (Doing this also shows them that I am making an effort to remember and not just making a false promise.)
I take away privileges when necessary.
Soccer practice, books before bedtime, summer camp.
These are just a few of the many privileges my children are lucky to have. I don’t constantly remind them they live a privileged life, but I do not hesitate to take a privilege away if necessary. Just yesterday, one of my daughters threw her dinner in the sink because she didn’t like what I served. I took the privilege of books before bedtime away. It was not a popular decision — my ears are still ringing from the tantrum that ensued. But I hope I am reinforcing that privileges areearned, not blindly given.
Most importantly, I model the behavior I want to instill.
This is a hard one. I am tired and so is my husband; we work long hours and we travel a lot. But at the end of the day, if we don’t dedicate time, money, and effort to helping others, how will we inspire our daughters to do the same? So we do little things, like banning paper towels from our house to avoid wasting paper. We also talk about the California drought and how we want to use less water. We give clothes away to the Salvation Army, bring cans in for food drives, and at Christmas we shop for underprivileged children. We also do large things — my husband and I serve on the board of a non-profit and dedicate a lot of time to helping its cause.
And no matter how big or small, we narrate what we are doing and why we are doing it. We talk about children whose basic needs are not met. We talk about people who are sick. We talk about the environment and how we need to protect it. Again — no lectures. No shaming. Just discussions and awareness of the world that is spinning around them.
Will my daughters grow into loving, kind, selfless women? Will they be hard workers? Will they selflessly give to others? Will they know what privileged lives they lead and try to uplift and support others?
I don’t know. God, I don’t know.
But I do know that asking these questions has to be a step in the right direction.
The crux of it is, I want to give my daughters everything their hearts desire. I want to give them lifelong joy and kindness, thoughtfulness, and awareness. I want to give them lessons on privilege and gratefulness.
And I am pretty sure you can’t find any of those things in the toy aisles of Target.