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Talking To Kids About Their Privilege Doesn't Need To Be Daunting

Social change starts with understanding.
You can start as early as age five and then you can get deeper into issues as your child gets more mature.
Westend61 via Getty Images
You can start as early as age five and then you can get deeper into issues as your child gets more mature.

“That’s not fair,” is often a complaint lodged by children. And it’s important for parents to explain that sometimes, life isn’t fair.

It might not seem fair when your sister gets a new pair of running shoes and you don’t. You have to explain, “She is getting new shoes because she has outgrown her pair and yours still fit. When you need new shoes, we’ll get you some, too.” That’s equitable.

It also feels unfair when your sibling gets the teacher they wanted, and you got the mean teacher you don’t like. “Yeah, that’s rotten luck, but sometimes life is unfair and we have to accept that.” It’s another lesson of life we have to teach our children.

Our children have a great radar for fairness, but they also need to understand some of the nuances of fairness. They need to learn that fair is not the same as equal. Parents get to stay up later than children because they are older and they need less sleep. Daddy eats four pieces of pizza and the preschooler only eats one. That is not equal or the same, but it is actually equitable. Different people need different amounts depending on their size.

WATCH: How to raise a generous child. Story continues below.

But, it is also important to teach our children about bigger forms of inequity that exist in society. These are not ones we can shrug off as, “Life is unfair – accept it.” These are the social injustices that still exist that we have to fight to change to make the world a better and more equitable place for all people.

Issues like gender inequality, white privilege, and economic oppression are complex issues. But, we can plant the seeds of understanding and social change in this next generation by discussing them with our children in age-appropriate ways.

The first step is to educate yourself

That may seem daunting to parents, but it is doable and much-needed. For many parents, the first step may be to step back and look at their own position in life. Has systemic advantage or disadvantage been something you have taken time to consider and reflect on?

Privilege has long, historical roots, but the issue is making big headlines now, such that many who have unknowingly participated or benefitted from privilege are having their eyes opened. It’s time we all educate ourselves about unfair systems of bias before we become the educators to our children.

Parents are often at a loss about how to talk to children about big-world issues like white privilege, systemic sexism, or racism, but children can understand such concepts and are not harmed by learning some of the darker sides of world events if we approach the topic well.

Here are ways to ensure we get those important conversations going.

Use examples from your child’s own experience

Children learn best when you use examples from their own experience. For example, you can explain that some kids go to schools that don’t have music classes or gym classes because their school gets less money for no other reason than the kids attending that school are mostly from a minority group. And that is unfair.

That also means that being white gets people privileges that others don’t get. Privileges that aren’t earned.

Use examples in history

Remind them that not long ago, women were not allowed to sign a lease for an apartment or able to get a mortgage from a bank to buy a house, just because they were women. Explain how people have fought to change that rule because it is not fair to women. And while we have improved that issue in Canada, there are still many inequities that exist for women and girls that we still have to try to improve. For example, woman are still paid less than men for doing the exact same job.

You don’t have to explain the unfairness to children about such things – they will understand the logic of why that is wrong.

"That's total BS, Mom."
Michael H via Getty Images
"That's total BS, Mom."

Use story-telling and books

Try to use a real person’s story to bring the important point to life. Even if you have to make up a fictional character, children understand stories better. You might start with someone like Jackie Robinson if your child is a sports fan, and tell the story of how he was the first African-American man to play in major league baseball because only white people were allowed to play. That’s unfair.

People should be picked to play based on their ability, not their colour. Ask your librarian for age-appropriate books or movies that address similar stories and discuss them together. Seek out authors with lived experience, who are better able to share cultural nuances.

All children from every ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability and gender need to hear the stories of heroes like themselves. Seeing people you identify with within a story or biography empowers children to know they can make a difference, too.

Make comparisons

If children can see that it is unfair for women and racialized groups to be discriminated against unfairly, then see if they can extend that line of thought to see how it would be unfair for other groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community or people with disabilities.

Discuss who gets privilege

If they can identify who’s treated unfairly by having less opportunities and rights, that means someone is getting more for unearned reasons or without merit. Ask your children if they can guess who gets an unfair advantage in our society. If you are white male coming from a higher socio-economic status, you are more likely to get opportunities for things like education, health care, employment and workplace advancement.

Participating in social action can help your kids believe in the importance of social equality.
Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images
Participating in social action can help your kids believe in the importance of social equality.

Have ongoing small conversations

Such important topics are ongoing discussions in the family. You can start as early as age five and then you can get deeper into issues as your child gets more mature. Use events that happen in their own lives or in the media as a springboard for conversation.

Some school boards include curriculum on the topic for high school students, but they have attracted some controversy. Parents can help by asking their children what they are learning about privilege at school and continue the dialogue at home.

Model good behaviour

Live by your values and participate in social-action campaigns that align. Anything from using hashtags in social-media posts to participating in public marches all help teach our children that we believe in equality and want to do our part to make the world a more equitable place.

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