I recently read two unrelated articles that touched on a worrisome trend taking place among affluent communities in the United States, which is the over-indulgence and permissive irresponsibility of wealthy and upper middle class teenagers in America. The first was an from an article in the December issue of Psychology Today called “The Problem With Rich Kids” by Suniya S. Luthar Ph.D. The other article was an online CNNHealth exclusive called “’Affluenza’: Is it real?” by Ashley Hayes.
The first article introduced the social and behavioral effects on children of “having it all.” The kids profiled typically come from well-off families, who have access to high-value material goods and educations. They are smart and would appear to have the world at their fingertips, a world where opportunities abound amidst the absence of want. But you know what they lack? According to Luthar, they lack purpose, and unable to fulfill some emptiness brought on by lack of adversity, they are depressed and are increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol, and even crime, from cheating on tests to theft and vandalism, and worse.
At this point you are probably imagining something, like a cross between Animal House and the boys from Dead Poets Society. But these weren’t soulless prep school snobs, these were upper middle and middle-class kids, kids with cars and sports and friends. These kids have Playstations and cell phones and bank accounts. These kids were not unlike my kids, and it worried me. The article went on to say that these kids are vulnerable because they are invisible. Sure, they get attention for being high-achieving, and they may even be popular or funny or athletic. But these kids, our kids, are falling through the cracks, and the results are devastating.
The second article was really more of a news item. It reported on the recent highly contentious sentencing of a 16-year old teen in Texas who killed four people one day while driving drunk off of beer that he and his friends had stolen from Walmart. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit. The kid and his pals simply plowed into the four bystanders who were aiding in replacing a flat tire and killed them all. This is not remarkable. Teens unfortunately drive drunk, despite our best efforts to educate them on the terrible and devastating consequences. The thing that was remarkable about this story is that the teen did not go to jail. The boy’s attorneys pleaded that he had “affluenza,” and was a victim of his privileged upbringing which had precluded him from ever having experienced any consequences or discipline for his errant behaviors. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and mandatory treatment for his drug problems.
Affluence has become epidemic “affluenza.” In pursuit of a better life for our beloved children, are we giving them too much of what they want and none of what they need? I mean, we all want our kids to do well, right? We limit their TV time and give them more and more tools to expand their abstract thinking and talents. We work long hours to afford them the things we did not have, because how can better things and better access not simply be better? Their self-esteem looks good to us, they are top of their classes, they multi-task, they are good at math. They use ipads at school. But I wonder.
Now, my kids and I are by no means rich, but I would say that we are probably middle-class, if one can still consider parents with high educations and higher bills and costs of living middle class. I mean, I am not complaining but my husband and I work A LOT and it feels like we can barely keep it together week to week. As a kid, I was always sold on the idea that middle class life meant a good income for a stimulating job, time for family hobbies and vacations, an idyllic home-life, and a warm hearth and well-dressed children to come home to each night. What we have is more like suburban chaos characterized by long work hours, decreasing salaries in comparison with the cost of living, carpools, caretakers, desperate dashes to soccer and appointments and short evenings where everyone has too much homework and not enough quality time. But I digress.
So, though I would not call myself or my family rich by any means, I see signs of this affective “affluence” within my own community, and in the attitudes of my own children. Just a bit, but I see it. And even a little bit of salt changes the flavor of the soup. But my kids, my kids are not like those kids. He would never rob a Walmart, she would never do drugs. Surely those teens had problems. But it is important to be clear. Love and attention cannot replace discipline and dealing with adversity. I might be a better parent if I stop trying so hard to give my children a good life, and started giving them more responsibility.
Imagine trying to save a child from the consequences of hitting another child at school so they won’t be expelled. It’s not the end of the world, right? It would be worse to have a blemish on their record and miss school. But doesn’t it really mean that you just gave the child permission to do it again? What about the parent who buys their child the treat they wanted after they have displayed a full-blown tantrum at the supermarket just to alleviate stress levels and exhaustion? Can you say you have never done it? But wouldn’t that act just reinforce to the child the power of inappropriate behavior, and the good feeling of reward for having acted out?
Well, children don’t become drug addicts and drunk drivers and murderers just because we are not perfect parents. But where does it start? I do think the answer lies in setting limits, not just for children’s behavior, but also for their level of access to the too-muchness of this modern world. When I was a child I got a little putt-putt train one Christmas. It was awesome, and I loved it. I still have it. I’m sure it didn’t cost much, as my parents didn’t have much in those days. But because it was one of only a few things I got for Christmas, I loved it. It was precious. I treated it with care and spent many joyful hours watching it put-put around its tiny track. It taught me appreciation for the small stuff. And value, including self-value for having something nice and knowing that I did a good job of taking care of it. Because if I didn’t, there wasn’t going to be another train. And so the consequence would have fallen on me, directly.
Fast-forward to my children. They have so much stuff. It’s not even like we buy a lot of stuff for them, it just accumulates. Stuff is cheap, and pervasive. Anything you want is accessible and available. It just is.
I am certain that most of the stuff in my children’s rooms means nothing to them. And this is my fault. I didn’t put enough limits on them, on us. Right now I think it’s fixable, because thank God, they aren’t teens yet. According to the Hayes article, by the time they are teens, it’s too late to change them. You may inadvertently have already instilled in them a sense of entitlement, and possibly a feeling of futility and despair. Because if you have no limits, it takes away your sense of worth or need to strive to keep up a moral code of ethics. You don’t self-regulate, because you know someone will always bail you out. And ultimately, without a sense of self-worth, it is impossible to develop empathy, and empathy is the core of our humanity.
I found the articles disturbing and unsettling, but I at least I found them. And they enlightened me and allowed me to understand clearly how a materialistic, irresponsible culture can pervade even good families to potentially disastrous results. But not my kids. Starting today we’re going back to basics, and I expect to find real joy there. For all of us.
Luthar Ph.D., Suniya S. (November 05, 2013). The Problem with Rich Kids. Psychology Today, December 2013. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201310/the-problem-rich-kids.
Hayes, Ashley (December 12, 2013). Affluenza’: Is it real?” CNNHealth. Retrieved on December 13, 2013 from http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/12/health/affluenza-youth/.