Do all middle class parents have spoilt kids?

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As I eagerly await the new Chris Lilley drama on the ABC I’ve been thinking a lot about Ja’mie King.  Ja’mie is Lilley’s drag teenage character that does a one term exchange from her posh private school of plenty to what she calls a ‘povo bogan school’ - Summer Heights High.  In the first episode, Ja’mie marvels at the ‘cute disabled, the fuglies, scanky bogans and sluts’.  I especially love the scene when she begs the kids not to be intimidated ‘just cos I’m rich doesn’t mean I’m a bitch’

Chris Lilley’s cleverness is in creating characters that are so familiar that our belly laugh comes with a knife between the ribs.   For me, Ja’mie’s awareness of her privilege in all the wrong ways is particularly painful. She illustrates a ‘middle class problem’ that is actually worth thinking about.

Namely, how do we ensure kids don’t become ungrateful wretches at best and spoilt brats at worst?

I often laugh at the tired, grumpy complaints from my children such as wanting a rabbit, or a motorised scooter but sometimes I am pushed over the edge to panic.  A few weeks ago my son came home and said ‘Why don’t we have an upstairs? Everyone else has got a two-story house. I want a teenage retreat’.  I told him that he was an ungrateful little wretch who had no idea how lucky he was and he could be living on the streets or in a garbage dump and then forgot all about it.

Until the next day when my daughter arose soft and flushed from sleep her hair in a wild mess, her body still so warm and soft.  As I stepped towards her for a hug she shrieked ‘is that my egg? That’s not hard-boiled! I HATE SOFT EGGS!’  Admittedly, she wasn’t well but my sympathy was lost in a rant about not being her slave, and that there were starving children all over the world who’d kill for that egg.

Many of us lucky enough to have food, shelter and most mod cons are aware of our privilege.  Or should be.  Hence we search for a path to ensure our children are too.  When they behave like entitled little so and sos we question if we cater for too many whims, pay them too much pocket money and are not making them aware of their good fortune.

I know about child egocentrism – small children are simply not able to understand or appreciate a viewpoint different to their own.  My university psychology thesis actually studied how it reduces over time but is still active in adolescents.  Yet as a parent I still insist on trying to rail against egocentrism and hasten my children’s development of understanding and perspective.  Not just because I don't want them to be spoilt and revolting. Not just because I want them to be grateful.  But also because I want them to be effective adults.  Privilege breeds complacency and that is the enemy to the development of drive and resilience – vital factors in life.  I also want them to be citizens who care for others.  As I age I’m understanding more and more that privilege has its limits.  It can’t buy complete safety and it can’t shield you from loss, grief, illness and despair.  That’s something I feel they need to realise gradually – if we live in a bubble it hurts more when it bursts from a great height.

There are many ways of building perspective in children but sometimes the most obvious and easiest are not the best.  We’ve all seen kids quickly throw away that Christmas card that declares they’ve donated a goat to Timor.  But I’ve seen worse.  I’ve seen Ja’mie appear in my home.  Some years ago my then five year old came home from a neighbour’s asking ‘Can we buy an African girl from the internet?’ Our neighbours sponsor children but her understanding reminded me so much of Ja’mie rating her sponsored children in hotness, that I recoiled.  While we actually contribute to a very different ongoing aid program in India, I realise we need to talk carefully about how the money is spent and why it is done.  Yet as I discuss helping a community with education, clean water and engineering projects, I wonder how much sinks in.

I know other parents who visit an orphanage while holidaying in Bali.  I know teenagers who attend high schools where they can pay to travel to Nepal, or have build huts or water wells in Africa. Many American schools require up to 20 hours a year community service for graduation.  All terrific but, of course such programs also raise questions of ‘aid tourism’ and the attitude of those involved.  When students adopt patronising feelings of sympathy and feel they sweep in as rescuers they are not always achieving understanding. 

In an integrated community children build friendships with children of diverse backgrounds.  That’s as helpful as anything else.  I don’t want to get this bogged down into the private versus public school debate here because I acknowledge that diversity is not always possible in certain suburban bubbles of Australia.

One of the world’s wealthiest men Warren Buffet has said “wealthy parents should leave their children with enough money to do anything they want but not so much that they are doomed to do nothing at all.”  While I won’t have to every worry about having too much money I still consider my children lucky.  But I want them to be plucky as well. So I make sure they see me struggle to pay off a credit card bill, or not buy things I want.  And I make sure they visit friends so poor and hard done by that they don’t have a teenage retreat or, God forbid, whose boiled eggs are too soft.

In the meantime I’m hoping to help them acknowledge privilege and I’m interested in your suggestions.  Because if Ja’mie moves off the television and into my life, I’m moving out.

 

41 comments

  • interesting article. As I work in international dev, I have taken my kids to Kazakhstan, Rural China and the likes and it does help sink into them that they are very lucky and there are people living in poor conditions. However, they do quickly default back to hanging out at shopping centre and wanting the latest and greatest. Sadly, we live in a right winged consumer individual world and it permeates everything from music to advertising to our education system. What walks in parents runs in children I find - no point taking the kids on a "development/tourism" holiday to an orphanage if your house/family values and worldview are materialistic and right wing. Kids pick up on this hypocrisy and resent you for it. If you want kids who are socially aware, politically engaged, empathetic, resilient etc. then that is what you need to be at home. Kids need to learn that the same boiling water that softens the carrot also hardens the egg. It comes down to parents instilling deep values that drive the kids behavior - not parents just trying to change their behavior as this wont work. Being white and from the west automatically makes us in the top 2% of worlds wealth. I encourage overseas dev trips for youth, but its not a bucket list thing to do or fashion accessory. There needs to be real purpose and understanding in it. My kids live in a far left house with encouragement to read, engage, get involved in a cause and even listen to the manics st preachers music etc. and though they are still teenagers who are pulled by this world, I know their deep instilled values will put them in good stead on whatever path they choose in life.

    Commenter
    diver dan
    Date and time
    August 13, 2013, 9:20AM
    • I grew up in a right wing household, and was always encouraged to read, engage, get involved in a cause and even listen to the maniacs. As a result I grew up socially aware, politically engaged, empathetic, resilient etc. Although people can have different beliefs in regards to the left/right wing scale, I think it is a bit rich to claim that either side is more educated or results in a better upbringing of a child than the other.

      In saying that, if you remove any reference to left/right politics in your comment above you make some excellent points; it is about making sure parents engage their kids in critical thinking and an understanding of the world outside of their own bubble.

      Commenter
      Bigmac
      Location
      The Blogosphere
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 10:12AM
    • Why does the left always think they're right?. Consumerism in our society is not just confined to people who have view on the right, as evidenced by your own kids. I also find it strange that you feel that encouraging kids to read widely, get involved in causes and listen to music is something solely left wingers do. Also I'm not sure why we need to visit a third world country and gawk at other people's misery in order to be able to empathise with people less privileged than ourselves. Isn't that just making kids think that poverty only exists outside of Australia and something you get involved with in discrete units of time as part of your 'holiday'?

      Commenter
      marebugare
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 11:23AM
    • I'm with Bigmac - good article but the left / right wing stuff is somewhat sanctimonious and holier than thou. Much also comes down to the child's personality

      Commenter
      Straightshooter
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 11:56AM
    • Yes diver dan, if parents are conspicuously materialistic it's no surprise if their kids turn out that way as well. You have to practice what you preach. For example, I'm not the "shop till you drop" type of mother myself, so neither are my three daughters.

      Commenter
      MO4
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 12:08PM
    • However,
      im sure you keep your kids carefully in a Bubble, not encountering any Summer Heights High people in Australia. The sense of entitlement can be impressive - last week while waiting for the kids outside a nearby shop , the expensive Grammar school lad ran across the road from footy training to his mothers double parked Audi A4 and yelled to his mates - Im starting to learn to drive next week when we get the new Q5 ( 70K+ car).. Cool Dude they yelled back. Theres no class competition around here, the entitled money has already benefited by govt subsidies - Govt subsidies to the private school, govt subsidised Lease car (temporarily stopped but Abbott bringing back in October), govt subsidised super, negative geared investment houses pricing out first home buyers. Not available to Summer High kids family incomes...See the other article on the joys of middle class welfare in todays online. .

      Commenter
      Parent of 2 SE Melb
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 12:59PM
    • "My kids live in a far left house with encouragement to read, engage, get involved in a cause and even listen to the manics st preachers music etc."

      Sure, because that can only happen in a 'far left' household. What a wanker you are, diver dan.

      Commenter
      Mr Eddy
      Location
      CBD
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 9:05PM
  • I have experienced this with my own daughter.
    Our relationship has fallen apart and I partly blame the way I brought her up, an only child whose
    needs were always met. I now see I gave her needs too much attention and she has come to expect me to meet needs even though she is married and lives a long way away. Unfortunately selfish and it seems with a sense of entitlement.

    Commenter
    pc
    Date and time
    August 13, 2013, 9:34AM
    • Tricky balance here. I'm thinking about a family I know. They're trying to raise their children to be confident and self-sufficient - generally considered valuable attributes in our society. In the push to make sure their children are confident enough to ask for what they want most requests are celebrated, but the parents are failing to see their kids' growing expectation that the answer should always be "yes, of course, dear! Here you are!" I'm not sure, but I have a feeling that by their teen years a kid should know better than to tell their mother that they want to try the food on another adult's plate: "I'd like some of that, mum (pointing to my plate)." Standard behaviour for this perfectly normal kid.
      I'm sure they'll grow up to be compassionate pillars of society (maybe), but with a sense of entitlement that'd make your hair stand on end.

      Commenter
      cynic
      Date and time
      August 13, 2013, 9:54AM
      • I was born in Shanghai and came to Australia fairly young. I consider my upbringing remarkably privileged even though we were probably just below the median income for Sydney for most of my youth. Now that I have young children I want them to experience not the extreme brutality of absolute poverty so much as to be immersed in the daily life of someone who doesn't live with the kind of luxuries we take for granted but also doesn't have to be deprived of anything essential. I want my children to visit and stay with my relatives still living in Shanghai for a month now and then.

        I feel this is more beneficial than the aid tourism approach as such a world is so divorced from ours they'll not be able to draw comparisons between their privileged upper middle income existence and those truly doing it tough. Show them a world where they can see themselves but simply strip away private cars, air conditioning, individual bedroom per child and add in super-crowded streets and transport, considerably less money for luxuries like clothes, movies, games and vacations and parents that work such long hours kids are expected to contribute considerably to the running of the home by the time they enter high school and maybe they'll start seeing just how lucky they really are.

        Commenter
        Vayor
        Date and time
        August 13, 2013, 9:59AM

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