Teaching Teens About Privilege

Updated: May 15, 2019
It's important to teach your kids about privilege, especially your college-bound teens. Some kids will work their way through college while others will have their trust funds to fall back on. How do we explain this to our kids? A therapist and clinical psychologist weigh in with tips for parents and teens.
teaching teens about privilege

The talk of the town...well, of parents of high schoolers...is the recent college admissions scandal that actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were involved in; in which a slew of parents secretly bribed competitive schools—like the University of Southern California—to accept their children. Sure, you can argue bribery has been going on for decades, and is nothing new in the world of higher education. However, bribing college coaches and administrators to accept your child to a certain school is (very) illegal. Whether a teenager has famous parents or not, the reality is, when it comes to higher learning, some college kids are more privileged than others—some students will always struggle financially to pay for school, while others don’t worry about money for college thanks to a trust fund or perhaps their parents’ high-paying careers.

More: How Much Do You Know About College Admissions?

This newsworthy college bribery scenario can be a teachable moment for your college-bound kid. Now is a crucial time for a heart-to-heart about privilege, and how your teen can navigate the collegiate world of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

“Working their way through college teaches students extremely valuable skills that they will take with them into their professional careers, such as juggling multiple responsibilities at once, prioritization, time management, and being financially responsible,” says Kathleen Burnham LMSW, a Chatham, NJ-based therapist who works with many teens. “Those who have to worry about the cost of college truly understand the value of a dollar and are less likely to take things for granted in a way that a person who is handed everything by their parents might.” Adds Burnham: “Also, working to support yourself through college keeps you busy, and busier people tend to be happier. There’s less time to engage in unproductive activities, less time to engage in substance abuse or procrastination, and other meaningless distractions.”

Also, acknowledge that as a parent, it’s OK to feel annoyed at the college bribery story dominating the news. “I think people are so angry about this recent college scandal because it has become so expensive and competitive to attend college, and kids are sacrificing so much sleep, free time, their general well-being and are so incredibly anxious throughout high school about college, that it seems unbelievably unfair that some kids could take their spot just by having their parents write a large check,” explains Burnham. “It also seems so outrageous because it’s yet another example of parents these days needing to control and curate everything in their kids lives, instead of focusing on raising resilient children who can handle disappointment.

It’s hard to NOT compare yourself to others as a college student; you’re surrounded by new friends from all over the state, country, or world, in close quarters, from differing backgrounds, and finances may come up, even in subtle ways. You may want to remind your teens they shouldn’t be so quick to judge their peers. “You never know anyone’s back story,” says Dr. Dara Bushman Psy. D, a South Florida-based Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “They may not be working or have financial challenges, but they may be emotionally depleted. There will always be someone else that has more or better. It does not define who you are. Our experiences build character and realism. Our experiences are just part of our story.”

Overall, says Burnham, stress to your teen that comparing themselves to others “is just a trap, and we rarely emerge from this feeling good about ourselves. It’s more important to accept your own journey and not get stuck feeling resentment and jealousy toward other people’s privilege because that literally gets you nowhere. The grass is always greener whatever your lot is in life whether you are rich or poor.” Insteads, recommends Burnham, remind your student to, “focus on what you are grateful for in your life.”

Dr. Bushman says the fact you’re even engaging your children in such chats is a win-win for both parent and child. “These stresses are good and demonstrate their interest in doing well and being successful. The stress shows they care and is a heightened state of arousal eliciting a response to make things happen.” And definitely remind your teens, “cheaters never win.”

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