I’m convinced that with very few exceptions, every parent tries to do the best they can.
That includes parents of privileged kids: children with the advantages of intact families, social support, economic backing, adequate health care, plenty of nutrition, and a decent educational system.
When parents like us fail, it’s not for lack of effort. More likely, it’s because we’re trying too hard, being too protective, doing too much.
Over the years, I’ve identified three behaviors common to good parents of privileged kids. All three require a counter-intuitive mindset. Only the emotionally stable and mentally strong can pull these off.
First, at an early age, good parents enlist their privileged kids to scrape the roasting pans and casserole dishes left after a large family meal. Think Thanksgiving, or a family reunion.
This particular task is an important one for well-off kids to get involved in because it’s gross and requires effort. I’m talking about those bits of meat that stubbornly adhere to the bottom of a roasting pan, that gel-like fat that squishes in your fingers like a wet booger, those slippery bone fragments that didn’t make the cut for the next-day soup, those amber puddles of grease now transitioning from liquid to lard. Let your kids dive into all that so they can experience the joy of being helpful and seeing the results of their efforts.
Of course, there are plenty of opportunities outside of the kitchen: assign your child to paint a porch, shovel a sidewalk, clean a toilet, or weed the garden.
The message? “You can do things you don’t want to do, and, nevertheless, end up with high satisfaction.”
Second, good parents think twice before they fill responsibility gaps. A responsibility gap is the space between what needed to be done and where a child dropped the ball. Too often, parents try to fill that void and miss an opportunity.
One newly enlightened parent put it this way, “Up to this point, if my daughter forgot her water bottle, or my son forgot his trombone, without even thinking, I would bring it to them. It never dawned on me that I can say ‘no,’ and that they could learn something from having to function without it.”
A parent’s job is not to “always be there,” it’s to be there when appropriate and necessary. Alert parents don’t always bail their kids out when they get into a pickle. Even sour pickles provide nutrition.
The message? “Learn to distinguish between an inconvenience and a hardship, and take responsibility for your mistakes.”
Beyond the Bubble
Third, good parents nudge their kids to step outside the bubble of their good fortune.
Good parents balance the known with the new, exposing their children to encounters with difference. And what is “difference?” A different place of worship? A walk through a previously unexplored neighborhood? An ethnic market? A refugee resettlement center? A soup kitchen? A hospice? These are educational adventures of the highest order.
You might not want to drag your offspring into a situation that exposes them to something different from what they or you know. You might want to keep them closed off from the dramatic differences – lifestyle, economic, religious, opportunity – that surround you and them. But over-protection of privileged kids carries the risk of isolating them from reality, and seeding unwarranted fears, ignorance, and biases that can show up later in life.
The best parents encourage opportunities for their kids that some would deem unthinkable: trying foods they can’t pronounce, engaging with strangers, exposing their kiddos to the “unprivileged,” exploring the unbeaten trail in intriguing countries.
The message: “Prepare to live in a diverse society by expanding your perspective beyond your own small world.”
Discomfort of Parents
Each of these high-functioning parental behaviors comes with a cost: Parents must confront their own discomfort.
It can be twitchy to allow our kids to do a less than perfect job scraping goo off pans, to permit natural consequences of mistakes to play out, and to foray into the economic underbelly of society. Those moves awaken parental discomfort: “They won’t do it right!” “I will be judged harshly!” “I’m not going to let my kid down!” “I’m afraid of what could happen!”
The best parents of privileged kids can turn down the volume on their fright-filled inner voices, while less grounded parents are quick to tighten their grip on the tether.
It’s tough to be a good parent when you’re allergic to your child’s disapproval, concerned with what others think, or more oriented to safety than adventure.
Part of the real work of parenting is figuring out what to do when what’s good for our kids makes us nervous.