A few months ago I volunteered at Fred’s book sale at school. I was working the register, and the librarian was explaining to me how to process the free coupons that a group of kids would be coming in with over the next hour. Though there was no one else in the library except the head librarian, she told me in a rather hushed and even apologetic way, “The underprivileged kids get a coupon for a free book. It’s just something that the outreach group wanted to do.” I nodded in quick understanding. “Sure,” I said, thinking this was a good thing but at the same time feeling a twinge of unfairness that not all children – my child, in particular – had this privilege.
Thirty years ago, I would have been one of those hush-hush children. I would have received a coupon, and I probably did for one event or another. I remember free lunches, and as my parents moved slowly up the socioeconomic ladder, reduced fee lunches. I most certainly remember financial aid during college and the almost laughable way one upper-middle class classmate called her financial aid package for a prestigious summer program overseas. “They may give me some financial assistance.” Over and over she refused to use the word “aid.” I attended an elite east coast college and boy, did I have my opinions about those sorts of people.
I remember very distinctly at one point in college when I thought to myself that when I have a child, I would make him live a normal, average life. This didn’t mean that I would set my expectations low, but that he would have to earn the things that he wanted. He should flip burgers or work for minimum wage, as I did, and learn how to balance work with studies and activities. He should know first hand how the average person lives and not be exposed to luxury. I thought he should understand the price of opportunity and the value of hard work. I believed that I should, and that I could, pass down my life experiences to him.
Then somewhere between the time I set foot onto my ivy campus and the time I swiped my credit card for a $250 birthday party for a 5 year-old, I became one of those people I swore I’d never be. It is a world I had never known as a child but perhaps deep in my subconscience I had aspired to: the world of playgroups, playdates, piano lessons, soccer practices, PTA meetings, outsourced birthday parties. It is the world of options and opportunity, the world of privilege. The fact that we could now enter this world – a result of my immigrant parents’ sacrifices so I can do “better” than they did – was not a surprise the way that my new attitude was.
Max and I are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but so far we have been able to provide a rich life for Fred. Some of it is simply chance; by virtue of the fact that I married a Japanese man and into a Japanese family, Fred “automatically” became bilingual and we have to travel periodically to Japan to see Max’s family, in particular his aging parents. This doesn’t come without palpable financial sacrifice but international travel has become a necessity for us in a way that it isn’t for other families. Other than chance, we have a sense of empowerment that comes with a good education and a respectable profession. This empowerment allows us to tap into resources, find out what opportunities are out there, and design our lives in a way that would best suit our family. Because of this we can feel we are the drivers, and not the passengers in our child’s life.
What I realized, since becoming a parent, is that I, like any parent, simply want the best for my child. I want him to reach his potential. I want him to be happy. I want him to be safe and protected. This doesn’t mean that I will give in to every request and desire. I know the dangers of overindulgence. But if I can buy a house in a safe neighorhood with highly rated schools, wouldn’t I do it? If I can make Fred’s face light up with a dinosaur birthday cake and party, wouldn’t I do it? If someday he has the chance to take part in a science program for the summer versus waiting tables 40 hours a week, and we can afford it, shouldn’t I allow him to do it?
Whenever I get the chance and it is appropriate, I tell bits and pieces of my story to Fred. I tell him about his grandfather, whom I rarely saw growing up because he had to work 12-hour shifts 6 days a week in order to feed his family. I tell him about the home I spent my childhood in, a 2-room apartment in a neighborhood that was so different from the one he lives in now. We talk about the children in Southeast Asia, in Africa, in Haiti. When he is a little older, I plan to take him volunteering with me.
Looking back on my life, I realize that I do not want to pass on my experiences to Fred. My parents moved to a foreign country and had no choice but to work blue collar jobs. But they moved mountains so I wouldn’t have to. They lay the groundwork for me to live a more privileged life so that I can provide the security and opportunities to my child that they couldn’t for my brother and me. What I can pass on, from my experiences, are a strong work ethic, humility, compassion and a commitment to service. And, along with material resources, I can also give Fred my time and attention. These, too, are the gifts of privileged parenting.