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Talking to Kids about Class


Cynthia Peters

My

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

bad job?”

It

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.

Recently,

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.

“You

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.”

Both

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.

So,

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?

In

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

than individuals.

Yet

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.”

Privileged

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

agency there.

Get

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.

If

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.

Except

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.

So

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.

Because

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.”

Was

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

replied.

“So,”

she said, “people who work on garbage trucks should also get to work in toy

stores?”

It

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.

 

  

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