I couldn’t get her off my mind.
Our family bid goodbye to the sweet little girl that had bonded instantly with our daughters. I didn’t know when we would see her again.
All my oldest daughter wanted for her birthday was a friend with whom to spend a weekend getting into adventures. They had a blast the first day: dinner at a favorite restaurant, a trip to the children’s museum, watching movies in a blanket fort in our game room.
I worried about having a “stranger” in our home. What if she misbehaved? What if she got homesick? It turns out I had been worrying about the wrong things.
My girls’ new friend was soft-spoken and well-mannered – the perfect playmate and houseguest. However, she seemed uncomfortable at meal time. At first I chalked it up to being unfamiliar with our food. We drink water and rarely eat fast food. This little girl came prepared with an overnight bag full of red soda.
I did a double-take when her cautious smile revealed teeth that obviously lacked dental care. Her teeth looked like they belonged to an 80-year-old, not a 9-year-old. I realized that she was reluctant to eat not because she didn’t like our food, but rather that eating was uncomfortable.
My heart broke when I saw the first louse crawling through her hair. Then I saw more. How had I not noticed until the second day of the little girl’s stay that her dark hair was strewn with white nits?
I discretely informed my husband of my discovery, and we let the girls know that their new friend had to go home a bit earlier than expected. I feigned cheerfulness, explaining that their friend’s parents actually needed her back today, not mentioning lice. But I was devastated inside.
I was sad that my daughters had made a friend that they might not see again for a long time.
I felt guilty sending this little girl back to a home likely infested with lice and stocked with unhealthy food.
But she had a house. And she was not going hungry. She lived in a two-parent home and talked lovingly about her family.
When we explained to the girl’s parents that we brought her home to prevent the lice from spreading to our house, they laughed it off. “We’re hood! You know how it is!”
Never had I been more painfully aware of my “middle class privilege.”
What is Middle Class Privilege?
Middle class privilege encompasses a set of values generally held by those who fall within this culturally-defined group. There may be certain expectations regarding hygiene, dress, personal conduct, and diet.
Middle class privilege also refers to the way society as a whole treats those in the group. There may be opportunities available to this group that are denied to those who are not: employment, education, clubs, even friendships.
Members of the middle class can get away with the occasional bad hair day, sloppy dress, or even “uncouth” behavior such as burping in public. Society often views this very same behavior from an “outsider” as a reflection of “the bad morals, the laziness, poverty, or illiteracy of their class.” (Credit: Education and Class)
Growing up, I never viewed myself as privileged. I was raised firmly in the middle class – there were kids at my school who had more “stuff” than me, and kids who had less.
However, I counted on certain things in my youth, things I didn’t realize weren’t available to all kids. My house was always clean. My clothes were new and bought specifically for me. My mom cooked us healthy, balanced meals. I had no idea that it wasn’t that way for all families.
Even as an adult, my suburban neighborhood and my similarly-raised friends and family insulate me from what is reality for many others. Until that reality stared me in the face with sad eyes, as if that little girl knew why she had to go home early.
Middle Class Privilege Isn’t All Bad
I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with belonging to the middle class and wanting to be there. Isn’t it our job as a parent to provide the best we can for our kids? I want my girls to enjoy their childhood, to be able to grow and learn freely.
I didn’t write this to make anyone feel guilty for their own upbringing, or for raising their children in a certain way. My husband did not grow up in the middle class, but has worked hard to ensure that his daughters do.
However, this little girl weighs on my mind because I know she is not alone, and because I was blissfully ignorant to her situation and of those like her. I’m sure I am not the only one so wrapped up in my own life that I don’t always notice what others are going through.
I talked to my oldest daughter later about why her friend went home. Her answer surprised me: “I know. I saw the lice, but I didn’t say anything.”
Undoubtedly, my daughter didn’t say anything in part because she wanted to keep playing. However, at the same time, my daughter showed such empathy and kindness to her friend by not making a fuss about something that freaks out many people (myself included).
This is a perfect example of the fact that our children aren’t born knowing who is privileged and who isn’t, and they don’t care. Until society gives them reason to care.
That’s why is so important to teach our children gratitude for their blessings and compassion for others. However, in order to do so, we must be open with our children, even if it is uncomfortable for us. We can’t hide the existence of middle class privilege if we want our children to learn to look past it.