My husband is insisting I schedule play dates for our daughter with kids who are from an equal or higher income bracket to our own. He's mentioned more than once that having the opportunity to socialize with more well-off families when he was growing up was really helpful to him. But I find this sort of social engineering really icky. Am I overreacting?
—Equal Opportunity Parent
Dear Equal Opportunity,
We all bring values into our parenting, both in our identities as parents, as well as what we prioritize to teach and model for our children. It can get tricky if these values differ between parents, and can quickly become a point of tension and conflict underlying daily parenting decisions.
In this case of socializing with children from equal or higher income brackets, I completely agree that the idea of "social engineering" feels full of all kinds of wrong. It sounds like implementing this with your own child may go against your own values, so it's a good idea to find out what values your husband is wanting your daughter to gain from this exposure. My guess is there are other ways to instill these values that you would find more comfortable.
Have a conversation with your husband about your values as parents. Turn this exercise into an activity—each of you can sit down and individually write out the top five values you want to teach your child, and then compare. See where you share values and where you differ, and how these differences may influence conflicting parenting opinions. This exercise can be a catalyst for a discussion that informs many aspects of your parenting approaches and choices as a couple.
Exposure to Diversity
Your husband's wish for your daughter to socialize with kids from higher income families could be considered exposure to a different lifestyle, and we do know exposure to diversity brings many benefits to children. Of course, this concept of diversity typically refers to all different races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, abilities, lifestyles, family compositions, etc. Not only those you feel would elevate your child's social standing.
By only showing your child one type of family, a family who is equal to or more well-off than your own, this sends a message that children from lower-income families are less worthy. This message becomes a larger life lesson around superiority and inferiority, going down that dangerous path of seeing certain groups of people as “other” and less valued. This way of viewing people is exactly what feeds into harmful stereotypes and harassment. I hope putting it in those stark terms makes the idea even less appealing!
The reality is the greater diversity children are exposed to from young ages, the better. The more they encounter people with all kinds of differences—visible and not visible—the more they build compassion and empathy and are less likely to have biases and harass/bully others on the basis of differences. I have yet to meet a parent who would disagree with wanting to raise a kind, compassionate child, so we really should all be on the same page.
While it may not be possible or practical to set up playdates with families from all different lifestyles, your job as the parent is to create this exposure to diversity, especially if it's not in your immediate community and daily life. For example, children's books have expanded to include so many different experiences and perspectives compared to when we were kids. Since I work with children with health problems and physical ability differences, I have made a concerted effort to make sure my own children read books with this perspective (Wonder by R. J. Palacio and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper are two faves).
Our world is becoming more and more global, connecting cultures and historically marginalized groups in new and different ways. The advantage of this is we—and our children—have unprecedented opportunities to encounter differences, and that is the key ingredient to reducing stereotypes, prejudice, and division. The challenge is it (hopefully) forces us to also examine how we may judge others who are different from us, our own unconscious biases, and how we may be passing that on to our children.
Biases in Parenting
Probably a more difficult conversation to have than the one about our values is about our biases, specifically how our own biases affect our children. We can preach the value of diversity and inclusion from morning until night, but if our actions send a different message, that's what our children actually learn.
It sounds like your husband may have some biases toward people from lower income brackets, and that has been shaped by formative childhood experiences. This is not to shame him—his bias is just easy to pick out in this scenario. The reality is we all have biases and we can't overcome them until we accept this and open ourselves up to change.
The stakes become even higher in our role as parents, as we can pass on biases as inadvertently as we pass on our genes. In some cases, the bias is not so hidden, but often we may be totally unaware.
In fact, white "liberal" parents who explicitly promote inclusion and acceptance are also known to be terrible about talking to their children about racial inequalities. It's not enough to talk about how we should all love each other and be kind; to really teach our children, we need to talk about the harder truths of how certain groups of people have been and are still oppressed and treated unjustly.
Although these weighty issues of parenting by our values and examining biases may feel daunting, the aspiration of raising good human beings is worth it.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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