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Countering the Challenges of Privilege with Gratitude
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By Julie Stevens

Children who attend CSEE member schools are often from families who would be considered privileged. Parents can support their children both in understanding the effect of broad social forces that perpetuate inequality and in formulating individual approaches to being privileged. School communities can benefit from reflecting on ways to help students balance their views of what they have earned and what they have been given. The research of Shamus Khan and Robert Emmons, summarized below, provides provocative counterpoint.

St. Paul’s School is a CSEE member school founded in 1856 in Concord, New Hampshire. For the first hundred years of the school’s remarkable history, St. Paul’s, like other elite boarding schools of that time, served white males exclusively. But St. Paul’s School has been remarkably progressive in seeking to evolve as an open, tolerant, and moral learning community while still honoring its rich traditions. In the 1950’s, St. Paul’s hired faculty and admitted students of color. Girls were admitted in 1968. St. Paul’s has made diversity a priority in hiring faculty and in recruiting students from a wide range of economic and ethnic backgrounds. One would be hard-pressed to find a school that has done more to foster an open, diverse community of learners.

St. Paul’s School has also been remarkable in welcoming critique of its school culture and in addressing areas of concern. In 2004, St. Paul’s hired alumnus Shamus Khan to teach, but also allowed him to study the inner workings of the school from his perspective as an ethnographer. Shamus Khan’s name alone provides immediate insight into his mixed racial and ethnic heritage, as the son of an Irish mother and a Pakistani father. His parents came to the United States as immigrants, were successful professionally, and then focused on helping their two sons realize the American dream. Kahn's enrollment in St. Paul’s in 1993 was a major step in his pursuit of that dream. Dr. Khan is currently an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University. His conclusions regarding the role played by elite educational institutions in shaping our evolving understanding of the dream of equal opportunity for all are presented in his recently published book, Privilege, The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Dr. Kahn’s personal experience and research reveal the challenges with which we must all continue to engage. Despite the exemplary model provided by St. Paul’s early, sustained, and intense commitment to diversity, and our society’s redefining of who are “the elite,” students must come to terms with an America where certain families are privileged and opportunities are not equally accessible. Consider these sobering realities:

Despite the fact that social institutions, including those of higher learning, now serve those previously excluded because of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion, economic inequality in the United States has increased, and the potential for upward mobility has diminished.
An elite education is increasingly available only to the children of the wealthiest Americans. Education is not the great class equalizer we believe it to be.

Belief in a meritocracy obscures “how outcomes are not simply a product of individual traits,” according to Kahn. In reality, young people who most likely will move into positions of power and wealth continue to be those who have enjoyed the greatest privileges and opportunities, and not those who are simply bright and hard working.

Kahn’s research suggests that students believe that inequality or lack of upward mobility in our society is the result of characteristics of individuals – individual choices or instances of bad luck – and not due to social hierarchies that perpetuate inequality.

While we in the U.S. pride ourselves on being a nation where self-reliance is rewarded, the American success story of the self-made individual is largely myth. The exception does not prove the rule.

This is not to say that school communities shouldn’t strive to be diverse, nor that students shouldn’t believe in working hard to earn good grades and the opportunities those good grades afford. But as parents, we do our children a disservice if we perpetuate the idea that their accomplishments are entirely due to their individual traits and diligence. We also have a responsibility to help our children recognize that while we should strive to create tolerant, open school communities, diversity and openness alone do not guarantee equality. Further, our children would be well-served to appreciate the combination of personal achievement and privilege that positions them for opportunities in life.

While being born into some degree of privilege is not cause for guilt (see "Jesse" article), it is a reason for young people to acknowledge their good fortune, even as they strive to realize their potential. And while parents should continue to help their children become self-sufficient, they should also point out the many benefits their children enjoy due to the efforts of others. In short, parents can help their kids achieve balance around their positions of privilege by practicing gratitude. According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor at the UC Davis, researcher, and author of Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) studies reveal that grateful people:

  • Experience higher levels of positive emotions
  • Are less likely to be envious, bitter or greedy
  • Are able to cope more effectively with everyday stress
  • Feel more connected to others and are more altruistic in their outlook
  • Are better able to practice forgiveness
  • Are less likely to suffer from depression

Much of Dr. Emmons research has centered on the positive effects of simply keeping a “gratitude journal”. He lists the following as the top ten ways to practice gratitude in our daily lives. My suggestions for ways parents might incorporate Dr. Emmon’s advice into family life are included in parentheses.

Keep a gratitude journal
(Parents might try this themselves, share their process with their children, and consider instituting some form of enumerating blessings as a family on a regular basis.)

Remember the bad
(To foster gratitude and counter complacency, parents might point to ways in which their kids have moved through trying or unpleasant experiences and be reminded of the relative good fortune of their current circumstances.)

Ask yourself three questions – What have I received from ____? What have I given to ____? What troubles and difficulty have I caused _____?

(Parents might help a child focus on a specific relationship, perhaps with a sibling or a friend, and use these questions to guide an examination of that relationship with a focus on becoming more grateful for that sibling’s or friend’s contributions.)

Learn prayers of gratitude
(If such prayers are already part of a family religious tradition or regular practice, parents might introduce their kids to those from other traditions or cultures.)

Come to your senses
(Parents can join together with their children in taking time to appreciate very basic, physical pleasures, such as the smell of newly cut grass, the great flavors combined on a special pizza, or the balance and stamina that allows for an impromptu game of pick-up basketball.)

Use visual reminders
(Given that two of the primary obstacles to gratitude are forgetfulness and lack of mindful awareness, place a plaque with some variation on the “count blessings” theme in the kitchen or family room.)

Make a vow to practice gratitude

(Promise your children or your spouse that you are going to make an effort to be more grateful.)

Watch your language
(Engage in positive self-talk, using the language of thankfulness – “I am fortunate,” “We enjoy an abundance of…,” “This is a wonderful gift” – rather than the language of deprivation.)

Go through the motions
(Parents who practice gratitude, even when doing so may seem contrived, can not only increase their own sense of well-being, but also provide a powerful model for their children.)

Think outside the box
(Parents might propose a counter-intuitive position in conversation with their kids, such as, “Why should you be grateful for an accomplished opponent in your next match? Or “Why might you be grateful for the opportunity to take care of your little sister tonight?”)


Julie Stevens is a parent, former teacher and school psychologist, a member of CSEE’s Moral Development Team, and a CSEE trustee. She is editor of CSEE’s newsletter, Parenting for Moral Growth.

[Type: Article]

[User Group: Administration, Parents, Teachers]

[Grade: Lower, Middle, Upper]

[Subject: Moral Development and Character Education]

[Subject: Parenting]


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