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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
The Secrets of a Privileged Childhood
It isn’t difficult to imagine a privileged childhood: we associate the term with a swimming pool in the garden, holidays abroad, lavish presents and outsize birthday parties – and maybe someone deferential picking up the clothes from the bedroom floor during school hours. Our ideas are plainly focused on money.
The idea has enough truth in it to convince the cynical parts of us, but the number of breakdowns and mental illnesses gnawing at the upper middle classes should be enough to force us to concede that money cannot on its own be the reliable guarantor of ‘privilege’ that it would, in a way, be simpler to imagine it was.
True privilege is an emotional phenomenon. It involves receiving the nectar of love – which can be stubbornly missing in the best equipped mansions and oddly abundant in the bare rooms of modest bungalows.
It is true privilege when a parent is on hand to enter imaginatively into a child’s world; when they have the wherewithal to put their own needs aside for a time in order to focus wholeheartedly on the confusions and fears of their offspring; and when they are attuned not just to what a child actually manages to say but to what they might be aspiring yet struggling to explain.
It is privilege when a parent lends us a feeling that they are loyal to us simply on the basis that we exist rather than because of anything extraordinary we have managed to achieve, when they can imbue us with a sense that they will be on our side even if the world has turned against us and can teach us that all humans deserve compassion and understanding despite their errors and compulsions.
It is privilege when parents can shield us from the worst of their anxiety and rage and the full conflicts of their adult lives; when they can respect that it is many years before a child is old enough to face the full complexity of existence – and when they are sufficiently mature to let us grow up slowly.
It is privilege when parents don’t set themselves up as perfect or, by being remote and unavailable, encourage us to idealise or demonise them. It is privilege when they can be ordinary and a little boring, can invite us to develop into a man or a woman beside them – and can know how to let themselves be superseded.
It is privilege when parents can bear our rebellions and don’t force us to be preternaturally obedient or good, when they don’t crumple if we try out what it feels like to call them old idiots, and when they themselves reliably seek to explain, rather than impose their ideas.
It is privilege when they can accept that we will eventually need to leave them and not mistake our independence for betrayal.
All of these moves belong to privilege sincerely understood, and they are, at present, about as rare as huge wealth, but at points more crucial. It is those who have enjoyed years of emotional privilege that deserve to be counted among the true one per cent.
It can be natural, when we meet with any sort of privilege that has been deeply and unfairly distributed, to seek to level the playing field. But it can’t be a redistribution of privilege that is required here, rather a universal increase – and the assurance of a decent minimum.
A truly fair society would be one in which a yearly rise in the degree of emotional privilege in circulation would became a national priority – and where an abundance of love, concern, and connection was adequately studied, encouraged and prized as the true ‘wealth’ it is.