Perceptions of wealth and behaviour

I’ve been wondering lately about children’s perception of their own wealth, or lack of it.  We talk a lot about the impact of wealth inequity upon children, particularly in terms of how that correlates with disparities in academic achievement, physical health, and so on, but what I’m asking about is a lot more micro than that.  How does a child’s knowledge of whether their family is rich or poor affect their behavior with those they feel are richer or poorer than themselves?  How does it affect their play?  Does it bestow power at the playground, or isolation?

For a long time in childhood, we assume that what we have is ‘normal’ or universal.  We do not compare it with what others have, and although we may want something specific desperately (a toy, a trip) we do not yet want someone else’s life to wholly replace our own.  That idea wouldn’t really make sense to a child of a certain age, because the idea of having a totally different life is impossible.

Then at some point ideas come creeping in.  Evidence of our ‘place’ in society begins to mount.  Perhaps we get teased for wearing the wrong clothes, for the car our Dad drives, for the lunches our Mom sends us with.  Perhaps we know that whatever the current obsession in school is ‘the best’ of it is ours for the asking.  My point is that wealth is only experienced, by children and by adults, through comparison.

There was an interesting post the other day on Sociological Images about a series of studies which correlate feeling wealthy or privileged with the display of selfish, callous behaviors.  “Having more tends to make individuals feel entitled to even more; research shows they feel less generous and more entitled to take resources (such as candy they have been told is for children coming in later), more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behavior. Privileged individuals — even those whose privilege is just having Monopoly rules rigged to ensure they win in an experiment — tend to believe they deserve their privilege.”

Of course, there are flaws with this study, if only the usual small sample sized drawn from the student body.  However, it suggests that feeling privileged (even when you know that the game is rigged in your favor arbitrarily) encourages demanding, unsympathetic behavior and the belief that your winning is “deserved”.  The video isn’t great (it oddly seems to assume that the viewer is an idiot) but it raises some interesting points.  The socioeconomics of playground bullying get a very brief mention, which I actually hadn’t seen when I started writing this post.  Awesome!  Maybe someone is doing a study on that.

Global Inequity

It also seems like that this generation may hear more about global wealth inequality than previous ones did.  Photographer James Mollision’s Where Children Sleep is a photo series of precisely what the title states.  I vaguely remembered this coming out and as I flicked through the images of empty rooms, the impassive faces of children, I felt increasingly sad.  The photographer said the book of these photographs is designed as a tool to help “develop empathy in children”.   It wonder if it works.

Then, I go searching again for the photo series I realized I had actually been looking for all along: ‘Toy Stories’ by Gabriele Glimberti.  Children around the world pose with their most prized possessions, almost always toys of one form other another.  This has a totally different tone, as the children all stand in their own poses.  Some straddle armchairs, some grin with their hands on the hips.  With this series we still have a vivid window into the lives of children around the world, but here they are individuals.  

That difference in choice can be seen in how this photography project was reported, as well.

The NY Daily News lead with the photograph that is my favorite, a girl named Maudy from Zambia, who stands laughing in the sunshine. In the caption is a little story about where her possessions came from.   Feature Shoot, however, chose to lead with Chiwa, of Malawi, who presents one of the smallest collections of things.  He is one of few children not smiling, and is given no story or context.  Two children from neighboring countries, suggesting very different narratives.

All this thinking didn’t really come around to a useful conclusion, so my apologies if you came here with hopes of one.  Instead, I would like to offer you a topical story by Gervase Phinn, who writes books about his time as a school inspector in the Yorkshire Dales (which is where my father’s family came from and I lived briefly).  I’m afraid I don’t have the book with me, but luckily someone else has quoted the scene online.

 ‘I know,’ (Sister Brendan) chuckled. ‘The charity is called CAFOD — Catholic Aid For Overseas Development — and it does wonderfully good work all around the world. It helps those in the developing countries to earn a living. When I started teaching, it was called “Penny for the Black Babies” and each week the children would bring a copper or two to school for the missions. We stopped calling it that when our first little West Indian boy arrived and I overheard a child in the playground tell him: “We’ve bought you, you know.”

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2 thoughts on “Perceptions of wealth and behaviour

  1. Hughes’ theory of stimulation bias backs up what you say here, morgan, and I can recall an incident on an adventure playground in Islington which has very rich houses on one side and a very poor estate on the other. A child from the rich side had smashed a child from the poor side in the face with a full can of fizzy pop, and felt totally justified because of what he had said to her. The playworker struggled to get her to understand that her reaction was excessive, the boy she had hit just stood there accepting that this was his lot.

    You go on to discuss value, which is a strange thing in a commodity fetishized world. Marx proposed that there is a contradiction between use value and exchange value which corrupts personal value judgements and social/economic development. This is because an article, say a shoe, has continued use value to the person who wears it for many years, but it’s value to the manufacturer is realised only at the point of sale, where it is exchanged for money.

    This is the major factor leading to built in obsolescence of goods – the use value is reduced in order to force a new exchange, and the emphasis on stimulating demand for new kinds of peripheral tat in the rich world at the expense of satisfying the great need of the poor.

    However, in play the strangest things can have use value such as a stick or stone, without ever achieving an exchange value even within the play. I remember my sister finding a piece of 4×2 about a foot long on the beach and treasuring and naming it. When it got too grubby my Dad had to sand it clean.

    When playwork speaks of an “enriched environment”, that enrichment is in it’s variables, stimulation and loose parts, a value which cannot be accumulated as it is experiential. Does that challenge a value system based on exchange? Does the toy reinforce it? What are the responses and responsibilities of playwork in providing compensatory spaces for play against the backdrop of a system which places value outside experience?

    1. I’d never considered this point before, and now it’s got my mind all ticking over about the economics of play and children’s cultures. Oooooh. Thank you!

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