Saturday, September 11, 2010

Explaining privilege to children

Today, I realized that I have to try harder to explain the concept of privilege to my 5 and 7 year old children and I'm not entirely sure how to go about doing this. My 7 year old just came up to me with her shirt up, rubbing her stomach, crying, and said "I'm starving."

I don't like when people who are actually just hungry say that they are starving, but I understand that I need to be somewhat forgiving when children speak. Usually, I just correct her and say "no, you are hungry" and get her a snack. Today, something set me off. Maybe it is because she just ate a rather large dinner followed by dessert only an hour before this comment. She also had a larger than usual breakfast and lunch, followed by a trip to the store with her father for a snack. Is it possible that she was having a growth spurt or something and was legitimately hungry? Yes. But more likely, she was just bored and wanted to eat.

The drama really bothers me. Crying and rubbing her stomach as though she hadn't eaten all day. She is often quite dramatic, such as when she gets hurt or when something exciting happens, but this was beyond excessive.

I told her that she is not starving. I told her that there are children all over the world who have not eaten ANYTHING today, or who have eaten very little, many of whom are not putting up the same fuss as she is. I reminded her that there are children who die because they do not have enough food. I told her that she needs to understand how privileged she is to get 3 meals and 2-4 snacks a day. Every day. I told her that she does not know what it means to be hungry... truly hungry. I am vaguely aware of what it means; I have gone days without eating because I did not have the means to get food, and weeks without eating anything more than a bowl of soup with bread a day from the soup kitchen, but I do not understand what it means to be starving.

I would like to find a book, movie, or even a youtube video that is age appropriate for her. The problem is that most of these films are deeply disturbing for a variety of reasons, often just because they can be incredibly ethnocentric. I want her to understand her privilege.


  1. There's "The Good Garden" by Kate Smith Milway, which does have a "happily ever after" when the family begins sustainable farming practices, but does describe the hunger they experienced before then and has a decent anti-neo-liberali bent.

    Photojournalist Peter Menzel's "Material World" might also be nice. It's not about hunger per se, but he photographed families from 30 nations surrounded by their possessions. Privilege becomes obvious.

  2. I haven't seen the "material world" mentioned above, but Menzel also worked on "Our Weekly Bread", which shows families from around the world surrounded by their weekly groceries. You can find the image gallery and article on the Walrus's website

  3. Just wanted to add that, at least according to the UN, getting enough to eat is a right, not a privilege. So perhaps growing up believing that this is the norm is not a bad thing.

    I think many parents try to explain privilege, mostly unsuccessfully. Mostly, what kids learn is that saying "starving" instead of "hungry" makes mommy go berserk. They can interpret this as further evidence of either mommy's quirkiness or of some failing of their own.

    I don't think that a 7-year old can really internalize the concept of privilege. As anyone who has been in a (name the marginalized group) studies class can attest, even young adults struggle with it.

    The real privilege, although I don't like using that word for something that should be a right, is yours--you get to watch your daughter grow up believing that starving is a synonym for hungry. And this is a good thing.

  4. I can't help with a resource, but when I was about 7 or 8 and we did comprehension in class I used to read the passage, get bored with answering questions and flick through the text book reading the other passages. One of the passages that's really stuck in my head is one that had two different lists, both of what different children had eaten in a day. There was a child from a well off family in Britain (the child we were meant to identify with I guess) and a child who I think was from Kenya (this is fuzzy, but you get the idea). Nearly 10 years later I still remember these lists pretty clearly.

    It didn't scare me, but it did make me think about the clips they play on the tv shows for charities, and it kinda sorted stuff out a little more for me. Maybe something similar would help?

  5. Thanks everyone... I apologize, I am usually much more on top of responding to comments than this but it has been a busy few days.

    I am going to show her those pictures... both the food and the one about possessions... and I was thinking about starting by having her draw a picture or write a list of everything that she considers to be hers to compare to what the other children in the families depicted have.

    I agree that having food and water is a right, not a privilege, but considering the situation in which some people exist, I also think that we are privileged to be able to consider that a right, if that makes any sense. And I don't think the ability to internalize some of these concepts are as much age related (although that is a factor based on cognitive abilities and brain development and whatnot), but I think first year students in university have to be unschooled, which I might get into more in a later post, whereas my daughter has about 10 years less formal education and me encouraging different types of thinking... which may or may not make a difference, we have yet to see.

    And thanks, Ruthie, that is a great story about a simple way to get children thinking differently about food, and it ties in really well with the pictures that were mentioned previously.

  6. On Youtube do a search for the make poverty history campaign. They have lots of videos that are even pretty tame for children to watch.

    This one is also very powerful.
    It's called Make Poverty History -Toddlers. It even brings tears to my eyes to watch this video.

  7. Thanks everyone... I just had the conversation with the kids this weekend. What I did was get them to draw me two pictures, one with everything that they owned, not just stuff in the house, but stuff they thought was theirs, like toys, bed, dresser, bike, clothes, books, everything they could think of. The second picture was everything that they ate on that specific day. Both pictures filled up the page.

    We then compared these drawings to the two photo essays, not that it was exactly the same comparison, but it got them thinking comparatively. Then we watched a couple of youtube videos, and discussed them. And today, my daughter said "I'm starving... I mean, I'm hungry." So far so good.

    My daughter thought they must be sad because the kids don't have toys, so I talked to her about advertising creating certain needs, and that they could be more happy with just a soccer ball than she is with a room full of toys... Then she said that it is ok if Santa only brings her one gift and gives the other ones to kids like the ones in some of the pictures (I'm surprised that she really does still believe in Santa, I thought she was just pretending last christmas).