As I eagerly await the new Chris Lilley dramaon the ABC I’ve been thinking a lot about Ja’mie King. Ja’mie is Lilley’s drag teenage character that does a one term exchange from her posh private school of plenty to what she calls a ‘povo bogan school’ - Summer Heights High. In the first episode, Ja’mie marvels at the ‘cute disabled, the fuglies, scanky bogans and sluts’. I especially love the scene when she begs the kids not to be intimidated ‘just cos I’m rich doesn’t mean I’m a bitch’
Chris Lilley’s cleverness is in creating characters that are so familiar that our belly laugh comes with a knife between the ribs. For me, Ja’mie’s awareness of her privilege in all the wrong ways is particularly painful. She illustrates a ‘middle class problem’ that is actually worth thinking about.
Namely, how do we ensure kids don’t become ungrateful wretches at best and spoilt brats at worst?
I often laugh at the tired, grumpy complaints from my children such as wanting a rabbit, or a motorised scooter but sometimes I am pushed over the edge to panic. A few weeks ago my son came home and said ‘Why don’t we have an upstairs? Everyone else has got a two-story house. I want a teenage retreat’. I told him that he was an ungrateful little wretch who had no idea how lucky he was and he could be living on the streets or in a garbage dump and then forgot all about it.
Until the next day when my daughter arose soft and flushed from sleep her hair in a wild mess, her body still so warm and soft. As I stepped towards her for a hug she shrieked ‘is that my egg? That’s not hard-boiled! I HATE SOFT EGGS!’ Admittedly, she wasn’t well but my sympathy was lost in a rant about not being her slave, and that there were starving children all over the world who’d kill for that egg.
Many of us lucky enough to have food, shelter and most mod cons are aware of our privilege. Or should be. Hence we search for a path to ensure our children are too. When they behave like entitled little so and sos we question if we cater for too many whims, pay them too much pocket money and are not making them aware of their good fortune.
I know about child egocentrism – small children are simply not able to understand or appreciate a viewpoint different to their own. My university psychology thesis actually studied how it reduces over time but is still active in adolescents. Yet as a parent I still insist on trying to rail against egocentrism and hasten my children’s development of understanding and perspective. Not just because I don't want them to be spoilt and revolting. Not just because I want them to be grateful. But also because I want them to be effective adults. Privilege breeds complacency and that is the enemy to the development of drive and resilience – vital factors in life. I also want them to be citizens who care for others. As I age I’m understanding more and more that privilege has its limits. It can’t buy complete safety and it can’t shield you from loss, grief, illness and despair. That’s something I feel they need to realise gradually – if we live in a bubble it hurts more when it bursts from a great height.
There are many ways of building perspective in children but sometimes the most obvious and easiest are not the best. We’ve all seen kids quickly throw away that Christmas card that declares they’ve donated a goat to Timor. But I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen Ja’mie appear in my home. Some years ago my then five year old came home from a neighbour’s asking ‘Can we buy an African girl from the internet?’ Our neighbours sponsor children but her understanding reminded me so much of Ja’mie rating her sponsored children in hotness, that I recoiled. While we actually contribute to a very different ongoing aid program in India, I realise we need to talk carefully about how the money is spent and why it is done. Yet as I discuss helping a community with education, clean water and engineering projects, I wonder how much sinks in.
I know other parents who visit an orphanage while holidaying in Bali. I know teenagers who attend high schools where they can pay to travel to Nepal, or have build huts or water wells in Africa. Many American schools require up to 20 hours a year community service for graduation. All terrific but, of course such programs also raise questions of ‘aid tourism’ and the attitude of those involved. When students adopt patronising feelings of sympathy and feel they sweep in as rescuers they are not always achieving understanding.
In an integrated community children build friendships with children of diverse backgrounds. That’s as helpful as anything else. I don’t want to get this bogged down into the private versus public school debate here because I acknowledge that diversity is not always possible in certain suburban bubbles of Australia.
One of the world’s wealthiest men Warren Buffet has said “wealthy parents should leave their children with enough money to do anything they want but not so much that they are doomed to do nothing at all.” While I won’t have to every worry about having too much money I still consider my children lucky. But I want them to be plucky as well. So I make sure they see me struggle to pay off a credit card bill, or not buy things I want. And I make sure they visit friends so poor and hard done by that they don’t have a teenage retreat or, God forbid, whose boiled eggs are too soft.
In the meantime I’m hoping to help them acknowledge privilege and I’m interested in your suggestions. Because if Ja’mie moves off the television and into my life, I’m moving out.