Saturday, January 05, 2008

[book] The Price of Privilege

Why are rich kids often so screwed up?

Can you blame it on the parents, whose dog-eat-dog obsession with work and competition makes them "successful" in business at the expense of their children. And if you are well-off and you care about your kids, what can you do to keep the money from ruining them?

The Price of Privilege, by Marin County psychologist Madeline Levine, tries to explain why well-off communities like Mercer Island are plagued by noticeably higher-than-average frequency of risky behavior like drug and alcohol abuse. Levine [no relation to Mel], quotes Soniya Luthar, the Columbia University psychologist who did a recent study of Mercer Island kids that shows our teenagers have many serious problems. (For example, something like 10% of girls here victimize themselves through "cutting"-- self-mutilation by carving permanent scars into their bodies in a desperate cry for help). Mercer Island's own Cindy Goodwin, from Youth and Family Services, is quoted in the book (p.29) blaming the pursuit of perfection here as a reason some kids are pushed over the edge.

Here are the main points:

  1. The most important trait kids must develop is a healthy sense of self: Self-efficacy (I can affect the world) and agency (I act in my own long-term best interests).
  2. Use different parenting skills at different ages
    • Age 5-7: their world is black and white, so behavior is controlled externally. They only understand "bad" as what's punished, but help them understand that bad behavior doesn't mean bad kid.
    • Age 8-11: they're now aware of their affect on others and groups, so show them you value their (1) character, then (2) effort, and finally (3) results -- in that order.
    • Age 12-14: Peers take on a central role, so give them expanded (but contained) opportunities to work things out for themselves. They can handle abstraction at this point, including ethical/moral ones, so talk to them about it.
    • Age 15-17: treat them like adults who are just less experienced than you are.
  3. Parents must practice wise discipline and control: learn to be firm, monitor performance, practice containment to demonstrate limits, and be flexible when behavior isn't perfect. [this is by far the best chapter of the book]
  4. Parenting comes in three styles: authoritarian (which breeds bullies), permissive (breeds self-esteem, but also impulsive kids), and authoritative (best)

Notice that all the above sensible points apply to every family, affluent or not. But to these perfectly reasonable suggestions, Levine adds two more that she claims are the special curse of well-off communities: "Materialism", which she blames on affluence, and the "Poison of Perfectionism", which she blames on success. Kids, she says, burn out because their success-oriented parents push them too hard. That's where I think she's wrong.

I'm a huge fan of Judith Rich Harris, who has convinced me to be very skeptical about claims that parents behavior matters much to kids (in reality, peers matter far more). When you look carefully at the statistics, including most of those cited by Levine, they just don't hold up. So I'm not persuaded by her claim that there is anything special about affluent parenting. Here's why:

  1. "Affluence" is relative. The most affluent neighborhood in America fifty years ago would seem quite average, maybe a bit below average by today's standards. Incomes rise, living standards go up, and what is considered "affluent" in one age, place, culture, is not particularly affluent in another.
  2. Ethnicity and culture must play a role too -- a role almost certainly larger than mere "affluence". Think about Jewish or Mormon or Asian communities. Many of them are just as "perfection-driven" as Mercer Island, if not more so.
  3. Levine claims materialism is a particular problem in affluent families, but hang around low-income Wal-Mart shoppers sometime and you'll quickly see that poor people are just as materialistic. If anything, my experience is that affluent people are less interested in material things (which are easy to get) and more interested in status (which is not measured in dollars). Greed is not related to the number of zeroes in the price tag.
  4. Yes, Mercer Island kids exhibit risky behavior out of range of "average" America, but why assume the cause is money? There are other communities where people aren't particularly wealthy but where the parents are very focused on their careers (artists, universities, etc.) Do they have similar problems?
  5. Even if money is a factor, shouldn't you distinguish earned versus unearned (inherited) wealth? Levine assumes the problem is hyper-competitive parents. But many wealthy kids are being raised by trust fund parents who've never worked themselves -- surely that has some affect.

I'm not convinced that the pursuit (she says "poison") of perfection is a factor either.

  1. Like affluence, "perfection" is relative. For every group that thinks Mercer Island is too "perfection-driven", there's some group that thinks we're too laid back. Maybe a tribe of hunter-gatherers thinks we worry too much about AP classes, for example, but we are easy on our kids compared to a Japanese "kyoiku Mama".
  2. We demand perfection from our airline pilots and surgeons. Why not our kids? We should encourage everyone to be their best. I bet if you look closely at the stressed-out kids, you'll find that the trouble isn't the focus on perfection, but rather the forcing them to be something that they aren't. But again, why are "affluent" parents any different than, say, the poor farmer who forces his kids to be corn growers?
  3. Levine admits that in surveys on the issue of overscheduling, kids say that they do extracurriculars because it's fun, not because parents force them. So how could this be a source of stress and suicide?

Rather than blame parents, or the "privilege" of a Mercer Island upbringing, I would like to see more attention paid to the peer group studies of Suniya Luthar and Chris Sexton, where they ask kids to self-identify into groups like "populars", "nerds", or "jocks", and then compare the answers to what other kids say. The fascinating results in other communities showed that kids mostly self-identify correctly but that, for example, kids who everyone agrees are "popular" actually have few close friends. Wouldn't you love to know how that plays out on Mercer Island -- and what it means specifically to your kid?

Yes, a lot of rich kids are screwed up. But a lot of poor kids are too. The fact that 25% of MI kids engage in risky behavior means that 75% don't. If you're one of the parents who cares enough to read this book, it makes a big difference whether that 25% is spread evenly throughout the school, or whether it's confined to a few outcast groups that your kid doesn't normally associate with anyway. That kind of information -- and tips for how to ensure your kid joins the right crowd -- would be far, far more useful I think than simply blaming everything on parents, whose success and drive should be admired, not scorned.


Shakespeare's Fool said...

You do not comment on schools. Could they play a role?

Richard Sprague said...

Sure, I think schools can help, but only in the context that kids themselves are providing the good/bad influences. I bet schools can do more to provide structure and limits on behavior, but it's a secondary influence. For example, schools can actively work to break up relationships that aren't healthy.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on MI (JHS through college years in the 70s) and am looking to move back now (we're in Medina at the present).

IMHO, more important than the income / materialism is the fact that Mercer Island Island. 30 years after I left, there still isn't much on the Island to engage the interests of kids who - for one reason or another - stop gerbiling from one structured activity to another. A couple of decades ago it was the lack of a mall that kids complained about. I have no idea what they want now, but a killer home theatre is not a substitute for a lack of a public movie house for example. Kids want places where they can socialize without the direct scrutiny of their parents, and the Island doesn't really provide that.

Richard Sprague said...

That's an interesting idea, though I don't understand why kids feel that existing options aren't sufficient: Starbucks, the new Community Center, Church/JCC activities, the private clubs, etc. etc.

Anonymous said...


Your criticism of Levine's observations regarding the role of affluence on the emotional health of children appears to be largely based on misinterpretation....I suggest you reread this book a little more closely.

Richard Sprague said...

Thanks for your comment. Not sure what you mean about how I misinterpreted Levines thoughts. Can you be more specific?