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Speak about inequality, not just inclusion

A few primary schools were in the news recently for setting rules curtailing birthday parties in school ("Birthday blues in primary schools"; ST, April 18). Their pupils are not allowed to distribute treats or party bags in school on their birthdays.

The rationales behind the rules make sense. Principals and teachers made them obviously because they have seen that children from families of different income levels have different types of celebrations, and that this can create feelings of envy and anxiety.

Material things are very important to children. Sociologist Alison Pugh has documented how children use material objects to gain a sense of belonging among peers. In my research on low-income families in Singapore, I have seen that low-income parents will spend what limited money they have on things for their children - such as nice soccer boots - because they recognise these objects' importance for their children to be able to partake in their social worlds. As Pugh argues, children use things not to show off, but to belong.

Reactions to the news seem generally in support of the schools' decision. In one commentary, journalist Yuen Sin and various experts she interviewed bring our attention to the fact that this is a teachable moment. Kids, they argue, should learn about embracing differences and about inclusion.

No one can argue with the thrust of these arguments. I would, however, like to push it further. Sociologist Daniel Beland has pointed out that the social inclusion/exclusion framework has a horizontal feel rather than a vertical one. The words "difference" and "inclusion" tend to paint a flat world, rather than a world of hierarchy and differential worth. Although a flat world would be nicer, it is not the one we live in. If the discussion about birthday parties is to be a teachable moment, we must not start from empirically false assumptions.

We can and should teach children not to display wealth and to be wary of exclusion and envy, but in a society which is highly unequal and in which adults have significantly different access to material things and display their relative worth through material objects, is "accepting difference" and being "inclusive" enough? Envy may be the thing we try to stem, but inequality is the problem.

What other pedagogical tools can we use to convey this and to energise students to see their roles in tackling this societal issue?

When I teach Sociology to university students, many of the social phenomena I introduce are not new to them. For example, they have already noticed how some have more and others have less. Many feel uncomfortable with these things but do not fully understand their discomfort.

In encountering sociological theories about inequality, they develop the vocabulary to think about these things as manifestations of inequality, rather than simply individual "differences".

When the phenomenon is framed as "inequality" rather than as "difference", they understand it as a social issue rather than a matter of personal circumstances. They are better able to empathise with others who are unlike them, and many come to see that they have a role to play in making society a better place for everyone.

University students are, of course, more mature than primary school pupils. But young kids often notice and understand more than adults give them credit for; they only lack the vocabulary for thinking and talking about them. We should help them develop this.

School teachers will have more expertise than I do when it comes to how to teach young children. What I am suggesting here is that there is value in paying attention to the structure of our narratives.

Instead of telling partial stories of "difference", we should speak candidly of hierarchies and inequalities. We should point out varied strengths but also unjust structures that value certain people's strengths over others'. Teachers can point out honestly that we aspire to justice and equality, but we are not there yet.

As adults, we sometimes do not want to open up conversations where we do not have the answers. Shifting the narrative is hard because they expose our own struggles, blindspots and biases. Hence, we also need to learn to listen as kids speak of their experiences. After that, we must be prepared to admit that we do not always have the answers.

These conversations should not be limited to discussions of birthday celebration rules or to those periods in the timetable designated for citizenship and values education. If we believe in values of equality and justice, then we must work to infuse these into our everyday ethos. The anecdotes or examples teachers use are all places where they can use examples that accurately reflect our society as it is, as well as idealistically present our society as we wish it to be.

Teachable moments are valuable. Let's make the most of them.


  • Teo You Yenn is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Speak about inequality, not just inclusion'. Print Edition | Subscribe