Popping the Bubble of Privilege for Our Kids
On their ride to school every morning, my children drive through a large slum. Even as poverty stares them in the face, they don’t seem particularly bothered by people sleeping on the streets or squatting by the roadside.
They aren’t cold and heartless. In fact, they care deeply about their friends and family. They’re empathetic about the world as they learn about it in school. A couple of months ago, when my daughter studied the work and experiences of Malala and Kailash Satyarthi, she came home indignant about children’s rights firmly determined to grow up and “do something to fix things.”
And yet, there’s no reaction to the inequity in their own city. They view the immediate reality that exists beyond their school bus window not only through glass, but through a physical and emotional filter. They are in a bubble – aware of what is outside but not connected to it.
It’s tempting to write off that bubble as merely a creation of a child’s innocence, or the self-absorption of youth. Except to do so would be to shirk responsibility. In truth, the bubble has been built by how my husband and I have raised our children. We both grew up in middle-class homes, used public transport and claimed the streets of the city as our own. In principle, we wanted to raise our children similarly – to feel safe and secure, have the confidence to move freely and make good choices.
Yet, parenthood has made us very cautious. The extreme disparity of this city now appears dangerous. When choosing a home, we picked a building with multiple security guards – overkill, in what is one of the safest neighbourhoods in one of the safest cities in this country. Of course, we often remind our kids of the privilege they are lucky enough to have – typically over unfinished dinners. We encourage them to donate some of their pocket money to charity, and talk to them about the work of the NGOs we support. Yet, they have never stepped into a home that did not have an A/C or set foot in a slum or, for that matter, walked in the bustle of busy market streets.
It has kept them safe thus far, this bubble. But unlike for past generations, today’s bubble of privilege has a shelf life. Money and education no longer assures them of a good life, a safe life. Pollution-related respiratory diseases hit all of Mumbai and Delhi’s residents last year, even the wealthy and cocooned. Gazing upon the grey haze engulfing the city, my husband and I started to sense the cracks.
A few months ago, young people, frustrated with a lack of opportunities, took their protests to the streets. Violence spilled into the public spaces of major cities, often at the edge of some of the most fortressed neighbourhoods. In educational institutions across the country, inequality is moving from a debate in class to pitched violence and distress on campuses — campuses our children may well attend in a few years. Campuses that do not have multiple security guards.
Watching these events unfold, our fears for our children grew. Running away to a Western nation used to be an option for anyone with the privilege of wealth and the desire not to engage with the ‘raw’ Indian reality. But the immigration polemic of the U.S. and the class tensions across Europe are equally worrisome. At best, our kids would get caught up in another class struggle. At worst, they’d be on the underprivileged side.
Addressing inequality of opportunity is going to be the defining challenge of our children’s generation. I want to believe that the current turmoil is not a bad thing. That it can be peaceful and lead to more equity for all. A slow but hopeful possibility. Yet, what is more likely, in the short-term, is more vulnerability and upheaval for everyone. How does one prepare our ‘lucky’ children for that world? How does one give them the confidence and capability to engage with what is beyond their bubble of privilege?
We’re taking baby steps. Our dinner-time conversations have consciously expanded to include discussions on the role each of us can personally play in sharing scarce resources. My son committed to rationing his use of water this summer. Grandmother has involved them in a drive to convince people in the building to be mindful of how much they waste they generate. My daughter tells me excitedly about a senior at school — a young aspiring writer who regularly takes a writing course in the U.S. each summer, but then teaches all she learns to students at a low-income school upon her return.
For the world they will inhabit, our kids need to be conscious of their own role in creating equitable possibilities for all. Our responsibility is to give them the courage and the vocabulary to act, not just to observe. We need to help them reach beyond the bus window, so that when the bubble of privilege does finally pop, they embrace the possibility of a more equal world and help turn it into reality.