Talking to Kids about Class
daughter had been studiously observing the Stop and Shop employee who was
bagging our groceries. As she left the store, she seemed perplexed about
something. Finally, she asked her father, “Dad, is bagging groceries a really
turns out that in one of the homes where she plays a lot, a lifetime of
“bagging groceries” is the threat applied to children reluctant to do their
homework or to take school seriously.
a friend and I were trapped in a van full of kids – his and mine – on a
cross street in New York City. A parade was heading down the avenue – marching
bands, floats of various kinds, police on horses, and last of all a bunch of
guys wearing orange reflective vests carrying shovels and buckets to collect the
horse manure. The pomp and glory of the festivities were striking, attractive,
enthralling. And then came the guys who shovel the shit.
see that, son?” says my friend to his eldest. “That's what happens to
people that don't study hard and go to a good college.”
sets of parents – the ones worried about grocery bagging and shit shoveling
– are well-off. Their children are getting nothing but the best in terms of
private schools, extra-curricular activities, high-priced vacations, second
homes at exclusive beach resorts, etc. They are also liberal. They would never
allow an explicitly racist or sexist comment to pass uncriticized; they recycle
their bottles and cans; and they give generously to charities.
with all that privilege and security, why do they imply to their children that
people with menial and rote jobs have these because they are somehow lazy or
malequipped to do more interesting labors? Why do they blame the victim, that
is? Many liberal parents expose their children to multicultural versions of
Cinderella, and anti-homophobic books like “Heather Has Two Mommies,” but
how do we talk to children about class and the nature of work?
the United States, race and gender are seen as immutable. You can't help the
color of your skin or the chromosomes that determine your sex. Yet we consider
class to be mutable. We are taught that with hard work you can move up the
socioeconomic ladder, and with less hard work you are stuck where you are or may
even fall lower. While it is true that some might be able to climb the social
ladder, our class society is not the meritocracy it's cracked up to be.
Systems and institutions that regulate class location are much more powerful
we maintain the illusion that class position is a function of willpower. The
illusion requires nurturing, and so while our children are very young, we start
indoctrinating them with the idea that everyone is responsible for their class
position. We blame and criticize the people who do our shit work for the very
fact that they do our shit work. It's their own fault anyway. We act
disrespectfully toward the people serving us, and defer to anyone in a white
collar. Why not turn the whole thing on its head? The people in powerful
positions are probably simply lucky. Or perhaps they ignored the plight of
others to achieve their class position. Or exploited others in the process of
gaining wealth and status. Meanwhile, what do they actually get? Sure, money can
buy a measure of security and comfort, which is not at all trivial, but after
that, what? I saw a bumper sticker recently that reminds us, “Whoever dies
with the most toys, wins.”
children get choices. Often they are trivial marketplace choices – what to eat
from the buffet lunch at their private school, what classes to take, what summer
camp to go to, what to purchase from the Gap – but all these choices
communicate a powerful idea: that they exercise control in their lives, and that
they are entitled to it. There is an illusion that everyone has similar control,
which supports the idea that you picked your class position for yourself. Why
not learn `em young that the marketplace, rather than a place to exercise
freedom, creates and then reinforces inequality. Only a privileged few exercise
involved with community organizations so that your kids see you being active,
AND see you dealing with people and practicing agency OUTSIDE the marketplace.
Work with your local school or community center to find ways kids can play a
role managing themselves in the institutions that most affect them. In addition
to choosing between algebra and geometry, students might apply themselves to
discovering a fair and efficient way of keeping the building clean.
you are a family with significant resources, notice how you talk about what your
wealth. You may have “worked for every penny you have,” but you may also
have been born into the middle or upper class with all its privileges; you may
have hit the inheritance jackpot – which has as much to do with merit as the
lottery does; and you probably exploited a lot of people along the way
(knowingly or not). If you have excess money, you should model for your children
the right thing to do with it, which is: give it away to social change
organizations. At a minimum, don't communicate to your children that you
somehow deserve what you have. More accurately: everyone deserves what you have;
you just happen to have it.
for those moments when they literally parade before us, the people who do the
really boring, monotonous, unempowering work are behind the scenes. The work
they do is invisible. We don't have to meet, know, understand or appreciate
the people that put together our cheap electronics, stitch our clothes, or
fabricate our throwaway plastic goods that last a few moments in our lives and a
lifetime in the landfill.
bring it out into the open. Talk about where things come from, who grew them,
transported them, manufactured them, and who will haul them away in the garbage.
Educate kids about the ways working people can gain power by being organized.
Show respect for unions. Don't cross picket lines. If strikes cause petty
annoyances, take that as an opportunity to put labor struggles in perspective.
Assign kids jobs around the house that typically get no respect; then express
what's important about that job – the role it plays in the household and in
the life of the family, why it's important, how it could be accomplished
efficiently and equitably. If it's tedious and disagreeable work, that
doesn't, by definition, make it dishonorable. But it does create an
opportunity to think about work, and even envision how it might be different.
I'm normally an impatient driver, my daughter wondered recently why I wasn't
honking at the garbage truck making its way slowly up the street in front of us.
“Because these men are hauling away our GARBAGE,” I said. “It seems like a
hard enough job as it is, without having someone honking at you.”
being a garbage man, then, a “really bad job,” my daughter wanted to know. I
answered that it wasn't bad (though it did look hard, boring, dirty and
smelly), but I just didn't think it was fair that one person should spend a
whole lifetime clearing away other people's garbage. “I guess I think people
should share these kinds of hard jobs, as well as the good ones in life,” I
she said, “people who work on garbage trucks should also get to work in toy
wouldn't exactly be my vision, but the sensibility is right on. The lesson?
Talk with kids about class and work. Let them know that you DON'T want them to
spend their lives bagging groceries or shoveling shit, but nor do you want
ANYONE'S kids to invest their life energy in brutally boring and draining
work. What's bad about those jobs isn't the job itself or the person doing
it. What's bad – really bad – is that our class-based society allows
privileged, empowered people to enrich themselves by leaving exploitative,
dehumanizing work to others.