Becoming a parent has been the most life-changing and blessing-filled experience of my life. It has also forced me to confront the ethical challenges of our many privileges as a family. First are the stark facts of our lives. On the day my daughter was born, December 23, 2005, and again on the day when my son was born, 2½ years later, about 350,000 other children were born across our planet. Of these children, the vast majority will live without adequate food or regular education, and without access to medical care, electricity, and safe housing. By world standards, in terms of income, housing, access to food, education, and medical care, my children are in the top 1,000 of all children born around the world on their respective birthdays. Most children of Sh’ma readers are also in the top 1,000. Occupy Wall Street aside, our children are the 1 percent.
This privilege is invisible to my children — which is entirely developmentally appropriate. Therein lies the ethical dilemma. My children live in a bubble — a bubble created by their privilege, to be sure, but a bubble also created, nurtured, and protected by everything I aspire to about child development: sharing difficult news in an age-appropriate way, helping them to feel that they are part of the solution, helping them to engage their conscience in a deep way, and supporting their attempts to right the problems that they observe around them.
The ethical quandaries are made more manifest by efforts to “do good” in the world. Three years ago, when Haiti was nearly destroyed by an earthquake, my daughter was 4 years old. My husband, Jeremy, and I explained to her that there was a bad storm in Haiti, and that we were sending tzedakah to some organizations there that were helping people. The next day, she came home from preschool with a list of items (washcloths, soap, toothbrushes) to buy and bring to school for children in Haiti. Already, newspaper reports were describing the ways in which sending goods to Haiti was creating short-term problems (there was no operating port that could manage the influx of clothing and household items, and a bottleneck at the port could slow down the distribution of food and medical supplies); as well, an influx of these items could create long-term problems by dis-incentivizing the production and manufacturing of goods within Haiti. In other words, my daughter’s school was suggesting an effort useless in the short-term and harmful in the long term — but carefully and lovingly designed so that my child could feel useful in the face of such a terrible tragedy.
At first, we ignored the washcloth request. How could we explain to her that this was ridiculous? We kept rolling our eyes at the light blue piece of paper hanging on our refrigerator, alternately smug that we would never fall for such a mistaken idea of international aid — and angry that the privilege afforded to children such as ours is so extreme that they even need to be made to feel helpful in a tragedy in which there is virtually no way for them to actually help. Of course, our daughter just kept asking us when we were going to buy the washcloths, as the pile at school was getting bigger and soon they would sail on a big ship to Haiti to help the children there.
Initially, Jeremy and I wondered how we would explain to our daughter why we thought this was a bad idea, but then we worried that we would give her the message that her teachers had bad judgment. And while we thought about speaking directly with the teacher, we decided against it, noting that fourteen children had already, diligently, brought in their washcloths. Considering this dilemma three years later, I wince at the layers of privilege that make possible this type of handwringing.
In the end, I bought the washcloths (made in Bangladesh!) and gave them to my daughter to bring to school, to be shipped to Haiti, where they likely helped no one, except my daughter’s sense of her own utility. And we, her parents, let her believe, falsely, that she had helped someone. I know that my children will soon be old enough to understand the complexities of doing right in the world and, in turn, how paltry our efforts are in the face of need that is so tremendous. In the meantime, these falsehoods only continue. About the homeless man, Jim, that we pass every morning on the way to school, my son asked, “Why can’t we get everyone we know to put a dollar in his basket and then he can buy himself a house?” Rather than explaining the many reasons why this would be insufficient to house Jim, I said weakly, “What a beautiful idea, whom do you think we should ask first?” and walked down Broadway feeling numb. We are in a holding pattern — borne out of the privilege of resources, both monetary and psychological — that sometimes feels like a big lie.email print