Folding Sunglasses are Cool but Empathy is Cooler: An Unintentional Tale of Exclusion and Privilege
The day was energetic, exciting, and bursting with school pride. As a parent, my heart beamed with joy and happiness as I watched my boys run endless laps around the gymnasium as music blasted; they ran hard to do their part in raising money for a new playground. The unity in the room was pulsing and palpable. Seeing kids come together to raise money for their school was tear-inducing. The principal danced in the middle to pop music and teachers and students tirelessly ran, side by side with parents and siblings cheering and high fiving from the side lines. Little kindergarten girls with bobbing pony tails kindly held hands and walked with my niece, who has Down Syndrome, as classmates whizzed by. Exhausted kids fell and were hoisted back up by supportive classmates. It was a beautiful event and one that met the imagined picture of what I want school to be for my children. One I both hope for and feel so incredibly grateful to have. I left Glover with a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. The sun seemed to shine brighter. People say you are only as happy as your saddest child. My heart beamed that day. So, when I picked my second grader up at school, I was surprised to see a sad, little, red face holding back tears behind foggy glasses. Cam immediately asked if I had recorded his pledges into the computer. PANIC! But, thankfully we had. Before he ran home alone, Cam briefly explained that only he and a couple other kids in the class were not called to receive various prizes after the run. His kindergarten brother had the same experience. As his friends buoyantly compared loot, Cam ran ahead and immediately went up to his room to hide in his bed and cry. He wanted to be left alone.
I was left feeling like, “WTF”. I was there. The day was joyous. What happened? I sat with a bit of sadness and a lot of confusion for my little guy. I heard Cam weeping in his room. The boys did pledge money (although they had not turned the check in yet), and the site said it wasn’t due until the following week. My Mama Bear part wanted to call the school and have a good ‘talk’ with someone about the injustice and inequality in this. Aside from my kids temporary feeling of exclusion, what about the kids who might not be able to contribute? Kids who can’t ask caregivers or family members for one reason or another? It ignores kids without socioeconomic privilege, a group that is already chronically marginalized. My sadness turned to anger.
I sat a bit longer. I resisted the impulse to blame someone or shoot off a fiery email. And, I thought more. After calming down, mostly because Cam calmed down after a good cry and a thoughtful talk, I went on to think ‘who excludes just a few kids in a classroom?’. Clearly, it was not their lovely, thoughtful teachers so I assumed it must have been the organization that came to host. An example of good intention focused on the goal of raising money for the school (and themselves), that created an unintentionally exclusive environment.
But, like any emotion, the fiery wave passed and I put this experience into a bigger picture. If I assume good intentionality and good enough reason on the school’s part, I asked myself: what can we learn from this? I realized that despite reading and writing a lot about backing off your kids and giving them opportunity for failure and ‘healthy suffering’, it is a difficult urge to resist. I learned my emotions are tightly tied to my children’s emotions, and I often feel the need to act or respond rather than just sit and listen. I also realized there was real opportunity in this for my boys that I might undo it in trying to change the natural course of action. And, I know rewarding financial contribution in young kids is a total set up for those less fortunate and I will raise this with the principal one day; as a person of privilege, it is my responsibility to speak up.
So instead, Cam and I talked about how the feelings he felt weren’t really about the crappy sunglasses or flimsy Frisbee he did not get - it was about feeling excluded and ignored. The sadness that overcomes the soul and the despair that creeps up when you know you worked just as hard as everyone else yet you are denied the prize. In a developmentally appropriate way, we talked about how the feeling of exclusion might not be familiar to him as a little boy who was born into lots of privilege. He has a loving family, lives in a safe neighborhood, has all his basic needs met, has many friends, is generally healthy, and has loads of other privilege (never mind that he is a white male…. which is beyond his young understanding). And, with that comes a responsibility. That feeling he felt, other kids often feel. I spoke to the sadness, anger, and loneliness I felt as a little girl when someone would point, laugh, or exclude my sister who had severe developmental disabilities. I encouraged him to remember that feeling he felt and always look around to notice who is left out or is being ignored. Notice who is excluded in situations - there is often someone. It is our responsibility to notice, empathize, and act. It is a privilege to be in the helper position and it is part of his duty as a member of our family. Cam seemed to understand on some basic level. He intently listened. I know this is something that we will constantly need to revisit and help him develop.
At the end of the day, The Fun Run did not end how I would have hoped but the day was generally beautiful and there was something to be learned. As a Mom, I learned it is difficult and valuable to sit back. The boys connected with a feeling of exclusion, which (thankfully) they don’t regularly face, and which will hopefully help them grow into advocates and allies for their classmates and peers. We both learned that pausing, talking, and processing is so much more valuable than receiving a chintzy prize that will eventually break and be tossed aside. Well, that is debatable. My boys would probably still opt for the folding sunglasses rather than an emotional talk with Mom but one day I have faith they will understand as these conversations continue. They will reap the benefits of being an empathic person long after the glow runs out of the bracelet.