Talking to Kids about Class

By Cynthia Peters

My daughter had been studiously observing the Stop and Shop employee who was bagging our groceries. As she left the store, she seemed perplexed about something. Finally, she asked her father, “Dad, is bagging groceries a really bad job?”

It turns out that in one of the homes where she plays a lot, a lifetime of “bagging groceries” is the threat applied to children reluctant to do their homework or to take school seriously.

Recently, a friend and I were trapped in a van full of kids – his and mine – on a cross street in New York City. A parade was heading down the avenue – marching bands, floats of various kinds, police on horses, and last of all a bunch of guys wearing orange reflective vests carrying shovels and buckets to collect the horse manure. The pomp and glory of the festivities were striking, attractive, enthralling. And then came the guys who shovel the shit.

“You see that, son?” says my friend to his eldest. “That’s what happens to people that don’t study hard and go to a good college.”

Both sets of parents – the ones worried about grocery bagging and shit shoveling – are well-off. Their children are getting nothing but the best in terms of private schools, extra-curricular activities, high-priced vacations, second homes at exclusive beach resorts, etc. They are also liberal. They would never allow an explicitly racist or sexist comment to pass uncriticized; they recycle their bottles and cans; and they give generously to charities.

So, with all that privilege and security, why do they imply to their children that people with menial and rote jobs have these because they are somehow lazy or malequipped to do more interesting labors? Why do they blame the victim, that is? Many liberal parents expose their children to multicultural versions of Cinderella, and anti-homophobic books like “Heather Has Two Mommies,” but how do we talk to children about class and the nature of work?

In the United States, race and gender are seen as immutable. You can’t help the color of your skin or the chromosomes that determine your sex. Yet we consider class to be mutable. We are taught that with hard work you can move up the socioeconomic ladder, and with less hard work you are stuck where you are or may even fall lower. While it is true that some might be able to climb the social ladder, our class society is not the meritocracy it’s cracked up to be. Systems and institutions that regulate class location are much more powerful than individuals.

Yet we maintain the illusion that class position is a function of willpower. The illusion requires nurturing, and so while our children are very young, we start indoctrinating them with the idea that everyone is responsible for their class position. We blame and criticize the people who do our shit work for the very fact that they do our shit work. It’s their own fault anyway. We act disrespectfully toward the people serving us, and defer to anyone in a white collar. Why not turn the whole thing on its head? The people in powerful positions are probably simply lucky. Or perhaps they ignored the plight of others to achieve their class position. Or exploited others in the process of gaining wealth and status. Meanwhile, what do they actually get? Sure, money can buy a measure of security and comfort, which is not at all trivial, but after that, what? I saw a bumper sticker recently that reminds us, “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.”

Privileged children get choices. Often they are trivial marketplace choices – what to eat from the buffet lunch at their private school, what classes to take, what summer camp to go to, what to purchase from the Gap – but all these choices communicate a powerful idea: that they exercise control in their lives, and that they are entitled to it. There is an illusion that everyone has similar control, which supports the idea that you picked your class position for yourself. Why not learn `em young that the marketplace, rather than a place to exercise freedom, creates and then reinforces inequality. Only a privileged few exercise agency there.

Get involved with community organizations so that your kids see you being active, AND see you dealing with people and practicing agency OUTSIDE the marketplace. Work with your local school or community center to find ways kids can play a role managing themselves in the institutions that most affect them. In addition to choosing between algebra and geometry, students might apply themselves to discovering a fair and efficient way of keeping the building clean.

If you are a family with significant resources, notice how you talk about what your wealth. You may have “worked for every penny you have,” but you may also have been born into the middle or upper class with all its privileges; you may have hit the inheritance jackpot – which has as much to do with merit as the lottery does; and you probably exploited a lot of people along the way (knowingly or not). If you have excess money, you should model for your children the right thing to do with it, which is: give it away to social change organizations. At a minimum, don’t communicate to your children that you somehow deserve what you have. More accurately: everyone deserves what you have; you just happen to have it.

Except for those moments when they literally parade before us, the people who do the really boring, monotonous, unempowering work are behind the scenes. The work they do is invisible. We don’t have to meet, know, understand or appreciate the people that put together our cheap electronics, stitch our clothes, or fabricate our throwaway plastic goods that last a few moments in our lives and a lifetime in the landfill.

So bring it out into the open. Talk about where things come from, who grew them, transported them, manufactured them, and who will haul them away in the garbage. Educate kids about the ways working people can gain power by being organized. Show respect for unions. Don’t cross picket lines. If strikes cause petty annoyances, take that as an opportunity to put labor struggles in perspective. Assign kids jobs around the house that typically get no respect; then express what’s important about that job – the role it plays in the household and in the life of the family, why it’s important, how it could be accomplished efficiently and equitably. If it’s tedious and disagreeable work, that doesn’t, by definition, make it dishonorable. But it does create an opportunity to think about work, and even envision how it might be different.

Because I’m normally an impatient driver, my daughter wondered recently why I wasn’t honking at the garbage truck making its way slowly up the street in front of us. “Because these men are hauling away our GARBAGE,” I said. “It seems like a hard enough job as it is, without having someone honking at you.”

Was being a garbage man, then, a “really bad job,” my daughter wanted to know. I answered that it wasn’t bad (though it did look hard, boring, dirty and smelly), but I just didn’t think it was fair that one person should spend a whole lifetime clearing away other people’s garbage. “I guess I think people should share these kinds of hard jobs, as well as the good ones in life,” I replied.

“So,” she said, “people who work on garbage trucks should also get to work in toy stores?”

It wouldn’t exactly be my vision, but the sensibility is right on. The lesson? Talk with kids about class and work. Let them know that you DON’T want them to spend their lives bagging groceries or shoveling shit, but nor do you want ANYONE’S kids to invest their life energy in brutally boring and draining work. What’s bad about those jobs isn’t the job itself or the person doing it. What’s bad – really bad – is that our class-based society allows privileged, empowered people to enrich themselves by leaving exploitative, dehumanizing work to others.