My kids experience little socioeconomic diversity – am I doing them a disservice?
By Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D.
I grew up in a working class neighborhood outside Denver. It was a suburban tract housing development of “starter homes” built in the early 1970s. One could find well-manicured properties, but also an abundance of crab grass and dandelions. An apartment complex occupied a large lot behind us, blocking much of our view of the Rocky Mountains to the west.
Those apartments were ugly from day one, with the look of a post-industrial communist dystopia. My classmates who lived there tended not to stick around for long – their tenures were measured in seasons. My mother instructed me to walk home from elementary school by taking the sidewalk that lined the southern side of the complex, and not go through the property itself. It was just a rule; she never gave a reason.
Occasionally I would disobey my mom and cut across the apartment buildings. I did this to avoid walking past a backyard that housed a dog who snarled at me and would one day succeed in devouring me from my belly button out. The dog’s name was Demon, after all. I had no similar fear of the apartment complex and what I might find there. Those apartments, I discovered on my rogue travels among them, sounded like Big Wheels and Days of our Lives. They were alright.
I dare say that everyone lived on a budget in that corner of the world. At our house, the winter thermostat was set to 69 degrees. We never got a professional car wash or oil change, and certainly never paid anyone to mow the lawn or pull weeds. I can count on one hand the number of times my parents took us to the movie theatre before I graduated from high school. The only time I traveled by airplane was to my grandfather’s funeral. In my early years our house was full of black-and-white generic products, from CREAM SODA to TOOTHPASTE.
I did not grow up poor. Few of us use that word to describe ourselves anyway – other people are poor. I was raised frugal and practical and lean. Everyone daydreamed about being rich. I coveted a bigger house, even as a child, and I could picture some of its finer features: it would have dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows and a second floor and most definitely a jacuzzi. Even my down-to-earth and generous parents had their eyes on the next rungs up. They bought the Lotto tickets too.
My children have different stories than mine. Here, in twenty-first century San Diego, the school district has a week off in February known as “Ski Week.” My kids have been to countless birthday celebrations through the years, where they have jumped on many square feet of trampolines, ridden ponies, petted exotic animals, played laser tag and paintball, and visited Snow White. Fourth graders at our elementary school can take a one-day trip to the state capitol by airplane, a 14-hour excursion with a $470 price tag.
This is a bubble, most definitely. The question is whether that matters, whether the affluence my children are surrounded by is a boon or harm to their moral compasses. Proximity to the poverty line, both in literal terms and from a sociological standpoint, greases the wheels toward greater empathy – or does it? If I grew up believing that Keebler crackers and cartons of orange juice are splurges, am I less likely as an adult to pity – or disparage – those for whom Well Baby Visits and back-to-school shopping are aspirational?
I think the answer is yes. So I’m troubled by this: there may be no way to authentically inform my children of the realities of other zip codes without undertaking a token tourism of socioeconomic status. We can pull tags off the Adopt a Family Christmas trees every year and purchase shoes and plastic tea sets to give away, but that’s a faint solution. It may take life amid the constant drumbeat of the monthly budget, the very concept of making ends meet, the chuck steak and the old mustard Datsun and knowing which Friday is pay day. That is hard to teach.
So while my kids enjoy health care, well-regarded public schools, and flights to Oahu, I believe this comes at a price. I talk to them, yes. I tell them how eager my own mother was for a college education, only to have her mother point her toward a job as a telephone operator. I want them to appreciate that college is far from a given for many. I hope they see that as white, middle class children with well-educated parents, they were born with advantages. And it’s all just random scatter – the race, the socioeconomic circumstances, the health and abilities we are born with. I didn’t deserve my mother’s savvy in getting her degree any more than another child deserves her mother’s psychiatric illness.
When I was midway through high school, my parents drove me to a writing camp in Iowa. The camp was ahead of its time in one remarkable way: it included a lengthy all-hands workshop in which we discussed issues like out-groups, race, sexuality, and identity. Those hours are still with me, 27 years and counting. I believe there is value in these efforts, to get us all talking and hear each other’s stories. As our current political realities suggest, we have an empathy gap that’s wide and well-entrenched. There’s long been a stigma against public assistance, for example, and that disdain is enjoying a policy-fueled resurgence at the federal level.
There are practical changes we can pursue that may promote empathy. We can get out of our neighborhoods. Those of us in our Land Rovers need to sit butts on city buses. We can work together on projects that cross regions and – dare I say it – borders. We can support civic mindedness in our school curricula, similar to the way both Boy and Girl Scouts include community service in programming.
When we chronically neglect this, we risk raising children who are tone deaf to the needs of others – or who are just fundamentally clueless about what daily life looks like for many. They are likely to see the apartment buildings out back as only ugly things, hindrances that block our otherwise lovely views of the mountains behind them.
Rachel Stewart Johnson, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and former lecturer in the Human Development Program at UCSD. A mother of three, her writing has appeared this year in Thrive Global, Elephant Journal and Thought Catalog. She tweets @rachelstewjo.