empathy, privilege, and responsibility

The Day I Talked About Privilege and Responsibility With My 3-Year-Old

I didn’t mean to talk to my three-year-old about privilege and responsibility.

There is a man who is blind that has off-and-on attended our church since before our kids were born. They’ve always liked him and know who he is.

But this past week, our #1 Little Man suddenly realized this man is blind.

We’d told him many times before, but he just got it. As in, he actually realized this man couldn’t see him. He finally understood that the other man’s perspective did not include knowing where #1 Little Man was.

And that led to a whole host of questions that has me questioning how to teach power dynamics and privilege to small children.

Because child soldiers…

Maybe blindness wouldn’t lead to a discussion of power dynamics in most situations, but it has everything to do with where we live.

You see, in our village, almost every man in his thirties or older was once a soldier of a rebel army–THE rebel army that supplied most of the world with opium. Most of them started as child soldiers. Pre-adolescent tween boys. Some even seven or nine years old.

This is a part of the reality of where we live and the ethnic group my husband is a part of. This is the reality my husband’s family fled so that their five boys would not become soldiers.

But back to the man who is blind at our church…

land mine caused blindness

“But why is he blind, Mama?”

#1 Little Man wanted to know why the man is blind.

And it’s not due to disease. It’s not due to some random accident.

He stepped on a mine. He was a teenager. He was a soldier. And one fateful step burned his eyesight forever. Now he’s an old man.

Maybe I’m crazy about honesty, but I try to answer my children’s questions as truthfully as possible–even the hard ones. 

I avoided details, but I told him the truth. 

“But why was he a soldier, Mama?”

“Because people made him be a soldier.”

“Why did people make him be a soldier?”

And then… there it was. Because they could. Because he had been a child and couldn’t fight back.

To a three-year-old who’d never known cruelty and such deep injustice, nothing I could say could possibly make sense. And, yet, I wanted to motivate him with kindness. So I changed the conversation slightly…

Making sense of power, privilege, and responsibility

“What are your countries?”

“America and Thailand.”

“Right, you have two countries. Your countries have governments that would help you if somebody wanted to take you. But not everybody has a country.”

“Paw Thao doesn’t have a country?”

“He didn’t back then. He was a young boy without a country, and the soldiers took him away. They told him and his family that he would be fighting for their freedom. He didn’t have any power to fight back. He had to do whatever they said.”

“Do I have power?”

Power. I squirmed. I hadn’t thought about the use of the word. I had said Paw Thao didn’t have the power to fight back.

I thought for a second. What is privilege if not a type of power? The word makes me more uncomfortable, but isn’t there some truth to it?

“Yes, you do,” I told him firmly. “Everybody has some power. Having a country is a type of power. Being able to speak is a type of power. Being able to speak English gives you certain power. Being born in Thailand is another type of power. And because of all this power, nobody is going to take you away and turn you into a soldier.” This was important, because I didn’t want him having nightmares. However, I needed to go deeper and get to the point, “But all of this power is not just for you. You have to use your power to help other people.

It’s been several days since then, but he won’t let go of this topic. Throughout the day he comes up to me and says things like, “I have power, don’t I, Mama? I’m going to use it to help other people.” Or, later, “How do I use my power to help people? I want to help people, Mama.”

I don’t know. How does a three-year-old use his power to help other people?

Brainstorming how a 3-year-old can help others

A passion has sparked inside him that he must use “his power” to help people. That’s good; that’s kindness. But I haven’t figured out what outlet to give him to do that.

So many of the things I know to do with small children are… complicated. Like Christmas shoeboxes. Maybe I’m crazy to live so close to poverty, where you think it would be easy to show my kids compassionate action… but I actually find myself less certain than ever what kind of action is genuinely kind.

So many surface-level kind acts don’t look kind when you look down the pipeline. Especially if the giver looks “richer” or “whiter.” It just gets all messed up and complicated.

Sooo… how does my 3-year-old use his “power” to help? How does our family use our privilege for good, instead of harm?

How are you teaching your kids to help other people? Do you do anything special for the holidays?

I’m still figuring this out.

My friends’ ideas for kids to practice kindness

In fact, I was drawing such a blank on ways he could “help people” that I took to crowdsourcing ideas on Facebook. My friends had some fantastic ideas:

  • Growing plants to give away
  • Baking cookies to give away
  • Visiting nursing homes
  • Visiting animal shelters
  • Making cards for the elderly or sick
  • Picking up trash around the neighborhood

Unfortunately, nursing homes and animal shelters aren’t really an option for us, because there are none where we live. I really liked the cookie one, because it’s also sharing a bit of our culture. Alas, our oven is currently broken. 

As for trash… it’s beer bottles and syringes around where we live. We have discussed when it stops raining for a week or so going and cleaning up the exercise track in our village, which I think is less likely to have drug paraphernalia. 

I seriously considered the plant idea. By then I thought about how last week my boys took a piece of PVC pipe and attacked our potted plants (plants they loved and had helped plant)… because, you know, the plants were dragons, and my boys were knights saving the day. I don’t think we’re ready to keep anything extra alive these days.

What we really did

For now, my boys made cards for a friend in the hospital. We forgot to send them, and the boy is no longer in the hospital. Oops. 

And then… my boys forgot which pieces of scribbled paper were the cards and practiced using their kid scissors on them.

So no more cards. Double oops.

My boys never noticed and possibly think we sent them. We haven’t discussed it.

We’re still working on this.

But, hey, when my son says he wants to help people… I’m listening to that, and I’m determined to find a way for him to practice compassionate action somehow.

How do you handle your young kids’ empathetic urges? How do you help them turn their realization of privilege into a responsibility to help?

4 thoughts on “The Day I Talked About Privilege and Responsibility With My 3-Year-Old”

  1. It is not too early to let him earn a little money for “chores”. Then he can spend the money to help someone else… or not. It will be his choice.

    1. I love this. I’ve been thinking it’s time to start “official” chores (rather than just asking them to help me throughout the day).

  2. Kara, I love your post. The word kindness really makes me more conscious about how I go about my day…am I kind while driving my car in traffic, are my words and tone kind to my husband, family members, and the person at the grocery check-out counter. I think if you role model and teach this to those precious boys, they will indeed use their power and privilege to the greater good.
    Laura

    1. I am in 100% agreement with you, Laura! It’s all the little things adding up together. The more I think about kindness, it has to be how measure all the little moments in our day (not be any other standard of success). If we can pass the kindness test, then we’re doing okay–even if the house is falling apart! (which it is… right now…)

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