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How to Talk to Your White Kids about Power and Privilege

As a therapist who works primarily with sexual issues, I know that there are topics that don’t get discussed much in homes, likely due to the uncomfortable nature of those conversations. The irony is, these topics are uncomfortable because we don’t talk about them often enough. A topic I have noticed many families neglect is power and privilege.

This certainly applies in the work I do surrounding sex. It applies in teaching our children how not to exploit younger or less able-bodied children. It applies to dating and peer relationships for teens. It applies to our role as a parent to our children. It applies to gender and it most certainly applies to race.

Here are some things you can do to help your children grow up as kind, aware, and accepting humans. We need to do more than say, “All people are created equal.”, and then go about our day feeling like we did the right thing. It isn’t enough.

  1. Acknowledge your own privilege. You can’t teach your children something you don’t understand. If you find yourself saying things like, “All lives matter,” take the opportunity to educate yourself on the subject. You can be sure that if there is a large group of people with a lot of energy surrounding a topic, there is something real there. If you don’t understand it and feel defensive about it, rather than criticizing it, learn about it. I recommend the book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo. This is a good start.
  2. Teach your children that the way they see the world isn’t necessarily the way the world IS. We so quickly take our very limited view as truth. This doesn’t help our children in life, or in the quest for kindness and equality. If your children see primarily white people everywhere they go, help them understand that this is privilege. There is a reason they don’t see black or brown people where they are, and it is power and privilege that those people don’t share. Teach your children alternative views of the world. Expose them to other people’s experiences and truths and treat those experiences as valid and real.
  3. Show your children the things they have simply because of what color they are and where they live. One of the biggest challenges here is that privilege by its very nature is invisible to us. We don’t have to look at the things that work for us inherently, and so we are usually blind to them. The luxury of privilege is that we can ignore the things that oppressed people are painfully aware of. I hear so often, “I worked hard for everything I have.” I believe most people work hard for what they have, but there are some things we have just because of who we are, what we look like, and where we are, that we did not have to work for. It is true that some people in society have to work much harder for the same things other people had to work much less for. This is privilege and oppression at work.
  4. Model for your children how to use their privilege to benefit those who don’t have it. A person with more privilege needs to use that privilege to make changes toward equality. This comes back to the hard work topic. The oppressed have to work so much harder to achieve equality. They can’t and shouldn’t be doing it alone. Those is a place of privilege need to use it to make these changes at a quicker rate. What do your children learn from watching you? Do they learn that different rules apply to higher and lower power parties (parents and children)? Do they learn that the one with the most power gets the say simply because they have the most power? Or do they know that everyone in the family, community, and world matters the exact same and so do their voices? Are you open to influence from your children even though they are smaller and less experienced than you? Reassess how you model power dynamics in your home. Children who grow up feeling overpowered relish in the day they get a turn in the seat of power and domination.

I meet with hundreds of students and clients on a yearly basis from all different walks of life. What I have found in all these deeply intimate and connected conversations and interactions is that we on a basic human level are remarkably similar. We all want to be loved, accepted and treated fairly. We want the same for our children and loved ones. Let’s lay down the defenses and model kindness and humility for our children so they can do better than we have.

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