Studying Privileged Parents as a Privileged Parent

I study privileged parents. And I’m more than a little critical of privileged parents. Especially when they treat themselves—and their children—as above the rules.

That said, I am a privileged parent. And so I sometimes find myself cringing at my own instincts.

About two months ago, my daughter came home from preschool upset. She was upset because she went to the bathroom at nap time, but she wasn't allowed to wash her hands after. According to my daughter, the classroom aide told her that hand washing is "too loud" and might wake up the other kids.

Now, my daughter is four. At that age, kids aren’t always capable of discerning fact from fiction, and they often have creative interpretations of things adults say.


So I figured my daughter must be mistaken about the no-hand-washing-after-pooping-during-nap-time rule. But then it happened again. And again. And again.

I thought about contacting the teacher. But I was worried about being seen as "that parent" - the one who is constantly complaining or questioning or challenging the teacher's rules. I thought about sending my daughter in with a bottle of hand sanitizer. But taking a passive-aggressive approach seemed even worse.

And then I got an email from the teacher - sent to all the parents in the class - a notice about a bad cough going around and a friendly reminder about the importance of hand washing.

So I figured - here's my opening. I emailed the teacher.

[here’s what I wrote - with names removed]

Teacher Email.png

The teacher wrote back right away. She thanked me for writing and reassured me that she would stress to the aides (who watch the classes during naps so the teachers can have planning time) that the children are allowed to wash their hands after using the bathroom at nap. She also said she would encourage the other teachers to do the same.

Later that day, as my daughter and I were washing our hands together after school, I told her what I’d learned: "Hey, so I talked to your teacher. She says you're always allowed to wash your hands. Even at nap time. So if the aides say you can't, you can tell them Miss R says it's okay."

On one level, I was grateful to be able to reassure my daughter. To tell her she was right to question the aides. That she was right about the rule all along.

But on another level, I felt horribly guilty. I felt guilty that the teacher responded so quickly and so apologetically. Guilty that my email might get the aides in trouble, just for trying their best to help the other kids sleep. Early childhood educators are overburdened and underpaid. The last thing they need is "concerned” parents telling them what to do.

I also felt guilty that my voice was heard. Guilty that my daughter's voice will be heard. Guilty that the voices of other parents and other children will not be heard in that same way.

When less affluent families and families of color speak up or challenges the rules, they can't count on being heard. Compared to privileged families, less affluent families and families of color don't have the same power to push back when institutions ignore them or deny their requests. And they risk being punished or pushed out if they get frustrated about not being heard.


Privileged parents could use their privilege to fight for those families, and not just for their own. They could demand that all children have access to the resources and opportunities they want for their own children. But, they rarely do.

Instead, privileged families use their privilege to bend the rules in their favor or exploit them for individual gain. They exploit school funding rules to ensure that their children’s schools always have money for computers, science labs, music, and art. They exploit placement rules to ensure that their children end up with the “best” teachers and in the top academic tracks. They exploit disability accommodation rules to give their children an advantage on tests and assignments (or what sociologist Jayanti Owens calls “Medicating to Win”).

As a privileged parent, I understand that impulse. I understand why a parent would want to bend the rules to make their child’s life a little easier, a little better, or a little less stressful. But as a privileged parent who studies privileged parents, I try to curb that impulse.

About once a week, my daughter refuses to eat the school lunch—usually the grilled cheese. And she comes home complaining about how hungry she is and how it isn’t fair that she has to eat the food they make at school. In that moment, I could intervene. I could talk to the teacher or the school director and send her in with a “special” lunch, instead. But I fight that urge. Instead, I tell my daughter: “I’m sorry, kiddo. Life’s like that sometimes.”

Essentially, I try to teach my children that privilege shouldn’t mean they can make their own rules.