Environments and Social Others

In thinking about their children’s self-location, parents were also concerned about the social others to whom their kids were exposed. They therefore thought carefully about the environments their children spent time in. Many parents worried about their children’s exposure to those with more, fearing a kind of contamination from other kids and families about what constitutes reasonable consumption. As we have seen, Sara was at a transitional moment with her husband, trying to decide whether they would stay in the city. In speaking of the challenges of raising wealthy children, she said:

I mean, that is a huge reason why we’re like, “Maybe we want to leave New York.” Because we’re still kind of like, even if we could afford the fancy apartment, we don’t want our kid to think that that’s—you know, to be surrounded by everyone else with fancy apartments. I don’t know. A colleague of [her husband’s] went on vacation with his family. You know, like, a nice vacation. They went skiing for a week, stayed somewhere super nice. He asked the son, who was, like, eight at the time, “What’d you think?” And the son was like, “It was great, but next time we fly private like everyone else.” . . . He spent, like, you know, ten grand on this vacation, with, like, ski lodge—you know, a ton of money. What do you do? He’s like, how do you insulate kids, you know? I don’t know what you do.

Speaking of her children’s summer camp, one stay-at-home mother said,

I worry because my kids are at camp, sleep-away camp in Maine. And the whole idea to send them is for them to learn independence and a little bit of social acceptance and, you know, how to fend for themselves and the whole thing. And my daughter’s going to a place where there’s no electricity, and we’re sitting here in the air conditioning, and she has really hot days and really cold days and learns to live with it. Which I think is all a good thing. But then you have the kids that show up in their private plane . . . It’s just warped.

This mother is trying to engineer a sense of deprivation for her daughter to promote her learning how to be independent, but because she is doing this in an environment of wealthy people, the child is still exposed to people with more. As I discuss later, this concern permeated decisions about schooling as well.

Although parents did not usually want their children to be exposed to those with more, they did want them to be exposed to those with less. Using an especially compelling phrase, progressive inheritor Eliana said she wanted her children to have “fluency outside the bubble,” by which she meant an exposure to and understanding of the lives of people with less. Yet it was not always clear to me which social others Eliana and my other respondents were invoking and what kind of contact they desired. Some parents wanted to instill a sense of awareness of and obligation to poor people, often in a relatively abstract sense, in a way that was reminiscent of noblesse oblige. Others seemed more interested in their kids’ having ongoing relationships with people who were “normal”—that is, not poor, but not as privileged as they were.

Some parents recounted trying to have conversations with their kids about poor people, such as impoverished kids in Haiti or the residents of the homeless shelter around the corner. A few parents told me they required their kids to give away one or two birthday gifts or to participate in charitable enterprises such as a swim-a-thon. Paul said, of his kids, “Always for their birthday we ask them to pick one present and donate it to kids who are less fortunate, because they understand not everyone gets what they get.”

As Paul’s comment shows, these practices also served to remind children of those with less (though such people were not actually visible to the children), thus cultivating awareness and appreciation, as well as a feeling of obligation to give back. Paul said, “I don’t think I feel entitled, but our generation as a whole is, relative to our parents and grandparents. And I try to continuously—even though my kids are spoiled fucking brats—they are. I mean, they get everything they want. But I try from an educational perspective to continue to just make sure it’s ingrained in their minds over and over again—whether they hear it or not, at some point they’ll get it—[this lesson about] what they have versus what other kids have.” What is fascinating here is the distinction Paul makes between actually receiving “everything they want” and having it “ingrained in their minds” that they have more than others. Here again we see the tension between the child’s lived experience of what is “normal” and the parent’s desire that he understand it as “not normal.”

A few parents saw community service or volunteer work as a way to cultivate understanding of others in their children. Alice, for example, lamented that her pre-teen son had not yet done volunteer work. When I asked her why that mattered, she said, “I think it’s a big element of being a good person, you know. Being a good person. And when you, you know, have all these things, if you don’t, you know, understand the value of volunteerism, and empathy, and all of those things—I think it’s a key element.” Susannah, another stay- at-home mother, struggled with how best to expose her children to the lives of others through charity work. She said, of her three kids (all under seven):

They need to know about diversity in the world and have experiences outside of their school and outside of their home, and

know that not everybody—you know, we—we—[she sighs]. I don’t think this has set in with my kids yet. But, you know, I do a lot of charity work. I take them to food pantries. We make bags to give to kids less fortunate. But it’s been very hard for me to show them in person what it means to be a kid who’s less fortunate. You can’t go to the hospitals. I can’t really take them to a homeless shelter. There’s not a lot of children [there]. The only place that I think that I can take them is an elderly home.

Monica said she felt a responsibility to those with less: “We help out. We go to public schools around the city that are—you know, there’s this thing where you go and you help them paint it, so it looks better and it doesn’t look like a dungeon. My kids should know what the other places look like, down in the outer boroughs, where other kids have to go to school. Be thankful for what they have. Sure. We do that kind of stuff. Not to prove that we’re better, but just to take part in a community. And my son does community service.”

Monica’s remarks highlight a tension present throughout these parents’ accounts: that between “being part of a community” and making clear that these poorer children are completely other (“my kids should know what the other places look like”) and exist primarily to help her kids in order to “be thankful for what they have.” Indeed, these accounts demonstrate that, as Ruben Gaztambide- Fernandez and Adam Howard put it, a “conception of the wealthy as moral and deserving . . . requires suffering others (i.e., ‘the people’) as a way to enact ‘good citizenship.’”13 Furthermore, there is a class assumption here that these parents’ children should have access to the lives of others even when they would not want those others to have access to their own lives/4

Some parents were concerned about a different kind of exposure: creating meaningful everyday networks for their children that included socioeconomic diversity. As Danielle put it, “I think there’s something instructional about growing up in a community that is economically mixed.” A few mentioned class diversity in their own families as one avenue of exposure to difference. But many had to engineer this kind of immersion. Kate told me, “Just the other day,

Nadine and I were thinking we have got to figure out a way, once the kids are a little older, to really expose them to the way most people live. The way most people live. And not in a, you know—in a concrete way.” Kate’s allusion to a “concrete way” implies a critique of an artificial or superficial approach. Scott and Olivia had chosen a church that was diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, income, and sexual orientation as a way to include their kids in a different kind of “community” because they had “a fairly homogenous day-to-day experience,” as Olivia put it.

One stay-at-home mother had lived with her family in a mixed- income rental building while their home was being renovated. She encouraged her son to keep in touch with the friends he had made there, who went to public school. She said:

I just feel like it’s a community that’s grounded. . . . It’s not this new world of, you know, private school in Manhattan. Almost all the kids that live there go to [the local public school]. My son has a lot of friends who go [there]. And you know, private

school education in Manhattan is kind of a crazy thing____And

I feel like I want to keep our feet in something that’s a little more normal. . . . I like the idea that [her kids] have this community, where, you know, you have three kids living in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s a lot of that. You know? You know, two of my son’s best friends, they live in a one-bedroom apartment with their parents.

This mother tried to keep her son “normal” by virtue of his interaction with people who have fewer resources. At the same time, having chosen to place him in private school (primarily because of smaller class sizes, she said), she preserved his class advantages over those same people. These attempts to construct meaningful community with people who have less again highlight the tension mentioned earlier in the concept of “normal”: between a desire that a child be more normal and a desire that the child know what normal is (and know that he is advantaged relative to it).

This pattern of exposure was less clear among African American and mixed-race parents. My interviewees, like many wealthier African Americans, had more class diversity in their families than many of the white respondents.15 But their children spent time primarily in majority-white environments (mainly private schools). Rather than class exposure, then, they talked more about wanting to create ties to other African American children and families in the middle class and above. A couple of these parents had also left Harlem after living there for years. One mother told me, after recounting an incident between her daughter and a mentally ill man, “You don’t want them to be afraid of other people of color.” She had moved to a largely white suburb; now, she said, “What’s important for us is to figure out a way that we can expose our children to other people of color.” One way to resolve this challenge was to join Jack and Jill, a cultural and social organization composed of relatively affluent black families, to which several people I interviewed belonged/6

Talking about those with less or interacting with them sometimes meant talking explicitly about money, which some of these parents were loath to do. In fact, many parents clearly tried to inculcate the norm of not talking about money. Danielle told me, “If[her daughter] says, ‘So, what did our house cost?’ I’m like, ‘That’s my business, not yours. And you know, we don’t talk about that. And there’s a time in your life where you can have that information, but now is not that time.’ And she says, ‘Why not?’ It’s like, ‘Because people talk about that, and it’s tacky.’ And I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do. And when she says, ‘How much money do we have?’ I say, ‘We have sufficient money for what we need.’” Speaking of flying privately, Olivia said, “We’ve had to have conversations with the kids about it. And just basically say, ‘This was really great. This is not something that you talk about. Because this is not an experience that most people you know will have.’ And it’s something that you kind of enjoy privately.” In this sense they reproduce for their children the common prohibition against talking about money and class; the “awareness” they cultivate is silent.

A final kind of exposure, which overlaps but is not congruent with exposures to class and racial-ethnic others, is experience of cultural difference more broadly. My interviewees often talked about travel, especially outside the United States, as providing this type of exposure. Julia, a stay-at-home mother, said of her children:

I want them to see the world as a big place that everybody, we all share in. [As opposed to] being kind of small-minded and just seeing your thing as the only important thing that’s going on, whatever that may be. I want to travel with them a lot so that they see that people live in different ways. That you don’t have to have a big house and have TVs and all that stuff to be happy. You can be just as happy living in a little grass hut in the Serengeti or whatever. You know? I don’t know. I just feel like we’re just surrounded by so much stuff. Which I love. I love all this stuff that we have. But sometimes that’s not what’s important.

Julia’s statement represents exposure to class difference as a subset of exposure to cultural difference more broadly. It fits into the project of self-location, an awareness that “your thing” is not the only thing that matters. But travel also provides the lesson that material goods are not always “what’s important.” Julia expresses a dilemma common to most parents I interviewed: the desire to keep the “stuff” but without kids’ thinking it is “what’s important.” Again, the fantasy here is that kids can have material and experiential comforts and at the same time understand that it is possible (for other people, at least) to live without them.

These parents hope exposure to those with less will discipline the affective selves of their children into appreciation and awareness. At the same time, exposure connotes an expansion of a child’s experience in ways that might be valuable in reproducing advantage later. Both parents of color and white parents thought this kind of exposure not only instilled good values but also could cultivate certain skills necessary in an increasingly diverse world. Lisa, for example, thought exposure to diversity for her kids was important “because most of the world is diverse. And you have to be able to relate to people.” Zoe similarly cared about traveling internationally with her children because she wanted them “to be worldly. And to see how other people live.” She later mentioned what seemed to be a more instrumental motive: “The world’s becoming increasingly diverse, and I think it’s important for the kids to be exposed to that.” Thus, as Diane Reay and her colleagues have pointed out, exposure to otherness serves both moral and instrumental purposes.17 The idea of instilling particular values in kids goes hand in hand with fostering capacities for dealing with difference. These become a form of cultural capital, as Eliana’s notion of “fluency outside the bubble” suggests/8

 
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