A Point of Privilege

05/04/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Much has been made about the potential pitfalls of privilege, perhaps especially among youth. Indeed, in cataloguing the struggles of many affluent teenagers, psychologist Madeleine Levine, Ph.D., author of the book The Price of Privilege, peels back the "veneer of achievement and charm" to reveal an epidemic of mental disorders -- including anxiety and depression - and discusses contributing factors such as perfectionism and a pervasive pressure to succeed.

Where does that pressure come from? Sometimes from oneself ... and, many times, from one's parents.

This body of work builds on groundbreaking research of Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. She, too, has linked affluent upbringing with issues related to anxiety, alcohol and other drug use and rule-breaking. In a January 9, 2015, New York Times article, Luthar expresses some empathy for parents who push. "After all, many such parents enjoy their fulfilling, prestigious jobs and have a wide network of friends from their top-tier educational institutions. 'Most of them desperately want the same things for their children, and why wouldn't they?'"

Frank Bruni weighs in on a rash of Palo Alto, Ca., youth suicides in an April 11, 2015, Op-Ed in the New York Times, "Best, Brightest -- and Saddest?" He quotes local psychiatrist Adam Strassberg reflecting on the fear wealthy parents may feel of losing their perch or being unable to hand it down to their kids. Strassberg says, "Maintaining and advancing insidiously high educational standards in our children is a way to soothe this anxiety."

Parenting clearly plays a significant -- if not the only -- role in both mental health outcomes and personal behavior, for worse or for better.

For better?

Yup, for better. A recent PARADE magazine story about the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, "Growing Good Citizens," reminds us that the imperative of civic engagement is nothing new and parents can help instill "the helping gene" in children, including those of privilege.

Alas, to whom much is given ...

That message likely resonates with Generation Z (born mid-to-late 2000s to present). Paul Greenberg, CEO of Nylon Media, notes 60 percent of them want to make a difference in the world, compared to just 39 percent of the Millennial generation preceding them.

And the difference shows up in some pretty interesting ways. For example, the Psychology Today piece "Quietly Making Noise" serves up profiles of young people creating change, including Pierce Keegan, who at 16 and with the help of his parents, founded Pierce's Pantry, a nonprofit, gluten-free food bank for needy Celiac Disease families.

Additional discussion of youth social entrepreneurship can be found in Alexandra Levit's March 28, 2015, article "Make Way for Generation Z." She introduces Sejal Makheja, a high school sophomore from McLean, Va., who at age 14 started the Elevator Project, which helps to lift people out of poverty by providing job training and placement. Similarly moving is the story of Isaiah Granet, also 14, who founded a kids' hockey team, San Diego Chill, to help developmentally disabled children learn how to skate and play the sport.

Just as compelling are examples of successful adults working to create positive change in their communities and society. While that list includes names such as Branson, Gates and Zuckerberg, it also features lesser-known stewards of social enterprise.

Jason Brian, a young entrepreneur who built into a multimillion dollar company, has turned his attention to helping others. His approach? The website, which matches people seeking relief from substance use with centers providing it.

Then there is the work of the Give Back Brands Foundation (GBBF), successor to Give Back Brands, LLC -- a brainchild of six beauty industry executives who decided to start a company with a mission to give the profits to charity. GBBF seeks to empower children through education and leadership training. Examples of its philanthropy include college scholarships for quadriplegics, gifted musicians and children of farm workers, as well as financial support for a hospital focused on pediatric cancer and a battered children's shelter.

Encouragingly, research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) points out that social entrepreneurship can be seeded by parents who emphasize the inputs of such endeavors, including commitment to faith and values, interaction with a positive peer group and the motivation to develop healthy social connections. Also linked to entrepreneurial interest and behavior are having family responsibility in childhood (such as chores) and receiving information from elders, including grandparents.

Leann Mischel, Ph.D., an associate professor at Susquehanna University's Weis School of Business and a senior research fellow at CARE who served as one of the study's lead investigators, agrees that entrepreneurial skills can be taught in the home, saying, "It is established that parents are most influential in encouraging and modeling such behavior."

Which brings us back to unleashing the helping gene. Maybe that, as much as anything, is an important point of parenting ... and of privilege.