Talking to Kids About Social Class Helps Shape Their Views—Here's What To Say

These conversations are important for a child's development. Experts share how to navigate discussions around social hierarchy, status, and inequality.

Daughter and father using smart phone over dining table at home
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As a child, my family struggled financially. We lived in row houses in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and trailer parks in York, Pennsylvania, and, by definition, were living in poverty in both. Yet, we never talked about social class.

As a father of three, I now live in a beautiful town in Westchester County, New York, with wonderful schools, free from financial struggles. And despite my best efforts, I still have struggled to get through discussions with my kids about social class.

But these conversations are important for a child's development. Discussing these issues "provides the building blocks for a lot of the other processes—things like perspective taking, empathy, conceptions of privilege are all downstream consequences of the attributions one engages in," says Paul K. Piff, Ph.D., associate professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, whose research focuses on issues including social hierarchy, status, and inequality.

What that means exactly? When children are raised with a realistic understanding of their station in life, they can become more appreciative of what they have and compassionate for others raised in different circumstances. When these conversations don't occur, children can grow to feel shame or accept certain common biases. That includes the just-world fallacy (the bias that people get what they deserve) and the fundamental attribution error (when people under-emphasize situational and environmental reasons for life outcomes).

I have also studied, researched, written, and spoken on this topic extensively. Yet, I still struggle to find the right way to have productive conversations with my children—ages 10, 12, and 14—about both the class into which I was born and the one we currently enjoy.

So, how can parents provide a better framework to have healthier conversations about social class? Here's what experts suggest.

Own Your Personal Story

"It is so important to share where you come from, yet we parents talk very little to our children about who we are as human beings," says Esther Perel, LMFT, a New York-based psychotherapist and host of the Where Should We Begin? podcast. Perel's work is inspired by her own family story: Her parents were the only members of their respective families to survive the Holocaust.

How we grew up inevitably impacts how we raise our children and our relationship with money and class. In my case, I am triggered when my children waste food because I remember what life was like on food stamps and having little choice over what we ate. Sharing these stories from my childhood can help my kids make sense of my reactions and hopefully be more aware of their good fortune.

At the same time, it's best to avoid comparison. Regardless of class, our personal journeys are filled with what Shai Davidai, Ph.D., assistant professor at Columbia Business School, refers to as "headwinds and tailwinds" in his research published in 2016. In other words, those things that we believe hold us back or push us forward. When sharing your own story with your kids, be sure to include both. If your story is too "headwinds" heavy, you risk sounding like you're out of touch, and if you only include your "tailwinds," then you signal to your kids that their own effort and agency aren't important.

Have trouble thinking about your own headwinds and tailwinds? Consider taking the quiz "Your American Dream Score," created with support from the Ford Foundation and the PBS initiative Chasing the Dream. Based on your answers, it will show you what factors were working for and against you. It will even give you a song that represents your journey. (Full disclosure: my score was 67 and my song was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.")

Keep It Simple and Relatable

For all kids, especially young ones, it's important to make conversations about money and class relatable. That can help their understanding of why some people do well financially while others struggle.

This was one of the reasons I rewrote the classic Little Engine that Could story. While the original focused on one engine needing to believe in herself (a critical and important message to teach our children), Three Little Engines focuses on how each engine wants to make it over the mountain in order to graduate and join their friends and family for a party. Each is on a different track—some have significantly more challenges than others like fallen trees, strong winds, and steep hills. As a result, only one engine can make it over the mountain. At first, she's confused. Did her friends not work as hard as she did? When a rusty old engine asks her questions comparing her journey to her friends', she realizes that they all worked hard but her friends just had more obstacles to overcome.

When I read this story to young children in schools, they tend to get it. They understand the idea of different outcomes and the many things that can contribute to it. I ask them which engine they are, and they choose based on their own level of struggle. We discuss "what trees have fallen on their tracks," and they share everything from "my goldfish died this morning" to "my daddy doesn't have time for me." Why some make it over the mountain is no longer about effort alone, but more nuanced.

The reality is, there are significant intersectional factors and marginalizations that can impact outcomes for people and their families, particularly race, religion, gender, and sexuality. For example, just take a look at salaries: there's a wage gap among LGBTQIA+ workers and for Black, Latinx, Native American, and Pacific Islander workers. There's also systemic racism in the U.S. housing system that continues to lead to wealth gaps, especially for Black families.

Have Ongoing Conversations

Conversations about social class should be ongoing ones that organically find their way into everyday life, suggests Perel. "What do you say when you watch the news? What do you say when you walk down the street? It is in every comment you make."

It's not unusual though for these discussions to bring up feelings of guilt or even shame. Allison Taylor, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist based in Westchester County, New York, says she sees guilt and shame in her practice frequently and encourages families to have open, ongoing conversations about those feelings, too. "Otherwise, we might unconsciously burden our children with the baggage of our own upbringing," she explains. "How they feel should come from an internal place." To avoid feelings of guilt, she suggests it's important that kids know "it's OK to have things, but not to expect them or take them for granted."

Dr. Taylor adds, "It is so helpful for parents to be in touch with and acknowledge the reality of privilege and to focus on not getting stuck in feelings of shame around it, which can be easier said than done. By modeling this behavior and talking about it openly, it allows children to feel comfortable exploring and owning their privilege without shame. The ultimate goal is to be able to appreciate privilege and, at the same time, use it in a productive way that is compassionate towards oneself and others."

Teach Kids Wealth Doesn't Equal Worth

Experts stress that parents must teach their children to never equate wealth to worth. This can be particularly tricky in a culture that often defines success based on fame or fortune.

This was a point that hit home after a conversation I had on my podcast Attribution with Esau McCaulley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically Black congregation in Chicago. He has written about growing up in a low-income household and his own questions about raising a child in the middle class. We talked about one of the most important lessons his mother taught him: that the world is more than just what you see and that our circumstances do not determine our worth.

How does this translate to how Rev. McCaulley talks to his children? "If they are ever tempted to look down upon others, I remind them to see the face of their father on the visages of the poor."

The Bottom Line

As a country, we are increasingly trying to have more conversations in our culture and in our schools about class, inequity, and privilege. We hope that they will create a generation that is more empathetic and understanding. Too often these well-intentioned efforts fall flat. One reason is that we haven't laid the proper foundation for them in our homes. If our children don't understand their own station in life, how can they connect with someone else's? Or said more plainly, before we can expect them to walk in someone else's shoes, they must first understand how they came to be walking in their own.

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