If you spend time with kids, you probably hear those words a lot. And for adults, it's easy to respond with "Life isn't fair." But for kids growing up with privilege, that response is problematic.
It’s problematic, because when a privileged kid says, "It's not fair," what they almost always mean is "I'm not getting what I want." So if an adult responds with "Life's not fair," what the kid hears is "You're not getting what you want, and that's not fair."
That response teaches privileged kids to see fairness only through their own eyes. To ignore the real injustices that exist in the world, or, maybe worse, to see their own inconveniences as equally "unfair."
The recent college admissions scandal suggests that privileged kids—and privileged parents—may have a broken sense of what’s fair. Court documents revealed that dozens of celebrity and CEO parents cheated to get their kids into “top” colleges—by paying for fake test scores, fake learning disabilities, and even fake athlete profiles.
But the kids in those families weren’t just innocent victims of their parents’ crimes. George Caplan, one of the fathers named in the indictment, described how he (and other affluent parents) tried to game the system of legal accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Caplan arranged for his daughter to be evaluated for a learning disability and then coached her to “be stupid” during the test. Having a diagnosed learning disability would qualify Caplan’s daughter for extra time on tests. Not just on the SATs but on every test she took in high school and in college. And that extra time would give Caplan’s daughter a chance at higher grades and higher scores. Caplan’s daughter knew she didn’t have a learning disability, but she played along. And she got what she wanted in the end—a spot at a top school.
As Shamus Khan’s research shows, the kids of celebrities and CEOs have long had a broken sense of what’s fair. But they’re not alone. Plenty of mundanely privileged kids—the kids of lawyers and doctors and even college professors and teachers—have a broken sense of fairness, as well.
As I describe in my book, middle- and upper-middle-class white kids see themselves as above the rules. They demand support and attention far in excess of what's fair or required. They break rules with impunity. When they get caught, they try to talk their way out of punishment. And they often succeed.
They succeed because of the power of their privilege. Because teachers and school administrators are afraid of what privileged kids (and privileged parents) will do if privileged kids aren’t allowed to win the game.
As one of the working-class white parents I interviewed explained:
“Parents here don’t make their kids accountable or responsible for anything. They do everything for their kids. Everything. It’s ridiculous. They don’t make their kids responsible for anything. I remember when I was a kid that if something happened at school, the teacher would call and tell our parents, and we would be scared to death and we wouldn’t do it again. It doesn’t seem like that anymore. It seems like the teachers here are afraid of the parents.”
That parent was right. The teachers I worked with were afraid of the parents—or at least the privileged parents. And that’s because saying “no” to privileged parents (or privileged kids) came with real risks.
For teachers, saying “no” often resulted in a deluge of emails, complaints to the principal, or even threats from parents about getting lawyers involved. One teacher I worked with was even “blacklisted” by a group of privileged parents—they wrote letters requesting that their children not be placed in that teacher’s class in fifth grade, and one privileged parent even pulled her son out of that teacher’s class and had him moved to a different class one week into the school year. Why? Because the teacher was seen as “unresponsive” to parent requests.
Those risks extended to principals and superintendents, as well. In the schools I studied, privileged parents spent countless hours volunteering and raised tens of thousands of dollars annually for the PTAs. They also supported the schools during fights with the school board over resources and teacher pay. And their children’s high test scores helped maintain the schools’ status as “good” schools. If the schools said “no” to privileged parents or privileged kids, they risked losing those critical resources and support.
Given those risks, it’s not surprising that schools and teachers say “yes,” even when they want to say “no.”
And of course, no one likes to be told “no.” But when privileged kids hear nothing but “yes,” they feel entitled to “yes.” And they bristle at hearing “no.”
So if you’re the parent of a privileged kid, or if you work with privileged kids, don’t be afraid to say “no.” And when they (inevitably) respond with "It's not fair," acknowledge what they're feeling, but challenge their meaning of "fair."
What does that look like? As the parent of a four-year-old, I can give you plenty of examples.
The other day, for example, she demanded a second snack, and I told her “no”— she’d have to wait until dinner. Stomping her foot, she glared at me and insisted: “It’s not fair!” And here’s what I said in response: "You're not getting what you want. But that doesn't make it unfair. Fair is when everyone gets what they need, and when everyone has the same chance to get what they want."
And of course, that wasn’t the beginning or the end of the conversation. That night at bedtime, for example, we read Maddi’s Fridge, a beautiful (and not overly preachy) book about friendship and about families struggling with food insecurity. And we talked about privilege and about the difference between wants and needs.
And some might argue that it’s not fair to put all that on a four-year-old. But I’d say instead that avoiding those conversations is what’s really not fair. Avoiding those tough conversations isn’t fair to the other four-year-olds who don’t have the privilege of being blissfully unaware.
But avoiding those tough conversations also isn’t fair to my four-year-old—because she needs to understand the inequalities that exist in the world. And she needs to understand where she stands in that unequal system. And she needs to understand what she can do to make the system fair.
Essentially, I’m arguing that kids, and especially privileged kids, need what Durkheim calls a “moral education.” They need to be taught to believe in the public good. To be good citizens. To care about the collective as much as they care about themselves.
Some kids are getting that kind of “moral education” at home. As I’ve found in my research, parents from marginalized groups coach their kids to be respectful and responsible. To put a bright line between right and wrong. In an interview, Ben, a student from an upwardly mobile family, talked about his disdain for classmates who would ask teachers to check their work on tests before turning them in (something I saw regularly in the classrooms I observed). As Ben noted:
“I never really did that. Because I think that’s kind of like asking someone to do it for you. But they want to get a good grade, I guess. And I want to [do that too], but I think it’s kind of cheap. Like, it’s your work, you have to do it. Instead of having the teacher check to see if it’s wrong. And so I’ve definitely gotten a lot wrong.”
Even when the deck was stacked against them, the marginalized kids I observed were reluctant to cheat to get ahead.
And yet, marginalized kids are also the ones being targeted for “moral education” at school. They’re the ones who go to the kinds of “no-excuses” schools Joanne Golann describes in her research. And as scholars like Carla Shedd and Victor Rios have shown, they’re also the ones being disproportionately punished for breaking the rules.
Privileged kids, meanwhile, don’t appear to be getting that same moral education. At home or at school. Unlike Ben, for example, the more privileged kids I interviewed didn’t seem to see anything wrong with getting teachers to check their work on tests. Or asking for extensions on assignments. Or talking their way out of punishment when they forgot their homework or got caught running in the halls.
And so I would argue that we need to be asking: Why aren’t privileged kids getting that same moral education? And what would it take to teach them? That kind of moral education might not be what privileged kids (or privileged parents) want. But that doesn’t make it unfair.
Jessica Calarco is an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. She studies inequalities, especially class-based ones, in education and family life and is the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School (Oxford University Press 2018). Her work also has appeared in such journals as the American Sociological Review and Social Psychology Quarterly. She has received a number of awards for her scholarship, including the Distinguished Early Career Award from the ASA Children and Youth Section and the Doris Entwisle Early Career Award from the ASA Sociology of Education Section. You can follow Jessica on Twitter at @JessicaCalarco.