Holidays always seem to give us the feeling of having too much or too little. We as parents strive to balance the giving and the getting, making sure our kids get the most important message—giving back—even as we try to give them what they want. Can kids who truly have everything have happiness, too?
It’s been proven time and again that socioeconomic status is by far the most significant indicator of child welfare. Usually when we talk about money, we talk about families that have too little. We talk about how children of low-income parents are 15 percent less likely to finish high school and 20 percent less likely to finish college than the non-poor. And about how kids raised in poverty are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty as adults than others. We make it seem as if the only money that matters is the money families don’t have.
But we know having too much money doesn’t breed contentment and success, either. There are serious challenges to bringing up kids—and being kids—who have it all. Research has found that privileged kids are, as a whole, more self-centered, depressed and self-destructive. They’re more narcissistic, but struggle to develop a sense of self. And yet, they excel, often quite notably, in academics, sports and other pursuits. So what we have is a generation of paradox: bright, talented, increasingly troubled children. And when they don’t excel, they often fail quite spectacularly.
Groundbreaking research was conducted in the late 1990s by Columbia University psychology professor Suniya Luthar. Luthar compared more than 200 mostly white, mostly rich suburban 10th graders with the same number of mostly black, mostly low-income urban 10th graders and found that the affluent teens drank, smoked and used drugs at a higher rate than their low-income counterparts. The students with money were also more depressed: 22 percent reported clinically significant symptoms. In subsequent studies, Luthar found that high-income students were also more likely to experience anxiety, chronic academic difficulties, psychological distress and delinquent behavior.
In the follow-up to Luthar’s work, researchers have similarly pointed out that some of the most at-risk students in the modern age are those who seem to have everything going for them, including their parents’ resources. Most place the blame not on the money, or excess of it, but on parents who are too indulgent—materially and emotionally—or too absent.
There have in recent years been a host of books on the topic of misguided affluent youth, all of which have received considerable attention. (Because, let’s be honest: Whether derided or defended, the rich are fascinating. As such, everyone wants to read, watch and generally absorb more about them.) In "Too Much of a Good Thing," Harvard professor Dan Kindlon writes about a generation of “yes” parents who bring up weak-minded kids with an overabundance of entitlement and self-esteem that ties only to their family’s wealth. Madeline Levine’s "The Price of Privilege" focuses on parents who put too much pressure on kids to be perfect, which instead causes them to suffer from depression and turn to drugs. Paul Tough’s "How Children Succeed" makes a convincing case that parents with resources aren’t, as a whole, doing their kids any favors.
But there are plenty of parents who do most things right. We tend not to hear these stories, although that doesn’t mean those endings aren’t also bleak, because they can be.
Pretending money doesn’t exist, or even forming an approach that works at home, becomes void once the kids leave the house, and the parents lose control—that is, once they go to school, or spend time with anyone beyond the family. And this is what most books on the topic of raising privileged children don’t address: when it’s not the wealthy family who creates pain, but everyone else. As a culture, we’re obsessed with the lives, and the bank accounts, of others, a fascination fueled by shows like "Gossip Girl" and "The Real Housewives," and Tumblr sites like Rich Kids of Instagram, which documents the often-lavish lifestyles of the young and endowed. The majority of society has formed an opinion about affluence that’s pretty firm: It’s greedy, excessive, showy, disconnected and not like the rest of us. In the wake of the financial crisis, the wealthy have been positioned as suspect at best, crooks at worst.
And so people with money don’t quite know how to feel about themselves, either. The message is clear all over pop culture: A middle-class family is where the real life, and real happiness, exists; where the values that count are formed and passed on. Books like Levine’s instruct parents about the art of teaching “middle class values,” a rhetoric that more often than not leaves both parents and children confused. It’s difficult to impart “middle-class values” on children who attend school with some of the wealthiest kids in the world. Instead, the talk should be about redefining, and reclaiming, “upper-class values” as ones that aren’t inherently flawed.
In the wake of the financial crisis, the wealthy have been positioned as suspect at best, crooks at worst.
There are times in children’s lives when parents wish that they could protect them from other people’s reactions to their wealth. But they can’t—not always. Not when a son is bullied in school, sent home in tears, for being what the other kids called “filthy rich.” Not when a daughter is made to feel like the college sorority she’d thought about joining was perhaps more excited about her family’s private plane than getting to know her. And she hadn’t told anyone about that plane. Aside from changing her last name and hiding all details of her life from potential new friends, what is she supposed to do?
There is evidence of how a family’s money defines the children, shielded or not. Often later, affluent kids think their money is their most notable quality: Because for so long, other people have told them it is. Some, then, learn to flaunt it and use it: to buy affection, or special treatment, or friends. They may let themselves be taken advantage of. They may rebel for the sake of rebelling. They may never get the chance to follow their true passions and discover who they truly are. This is also why kids who grow up in wealth often experience their parents’ failures even more dramatically. They see how quickly circumstances, and people, can change. This can instill in them a deep distrust of the world.
At the same time, privileged children often face a greater distrust by the world as well. Whereas many think that wealthy children have their advantages handed to them—in some cases, they do—in many instances these children need to work even harder in order to prove themselves. Some meet these extra-high expectations. Others do not. The key is how to make sure children of affluence are productive, and not overshadowed by a successful parent who may be, at times, larger than life to them. For many children of successful parents, that old understanding that you will do better than your parents will not come to fruition. That can be a tough reality to accept—for both the parents and the children.
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and contributor to "toughLOVE Raising Confident, Kind, Resilient Kids," available now on Amazon. Follow her on Twitter.