"Affluenza," the term some are now using when speaking about parents and the challenges they have raising their kids today. At the court hearing last week for a tragic auto accident in Texas, where teenager Ethan Couch hit and killed four people, the defense attorneys cited "affluenza" (when one is raised in an environment of wealth, privilege and no limits, and as a result doesn't understand that actions have consequences) as the cause for his crime. He's been sentenced to ten years of probation.
The term "affluenza" was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O'Neill, in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence. It has since been used to describe a condition in which children -- generally from wealthy families -- have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol.
Like a disease, affluence -- or living as if you have it -- can harm a child as they're growing up. Today, parents are sending out birthday invitations with a gift registry inside the card, letting guests know what gifts to buy their child. Many parents assume they are "poor parents" if they don't provide their children with everything they want.
Obviously, when the bar is set this high, a child's sense of entitlement increases. They start believing they deserve all the latest gadgets, tablets, smart phones, name brand clothes, expensive tutors and coaches, and costly vacations that are always better than last year's.
What we're finding is this -- "affluenza" begins translating into the notion that students deserve good grades just because they showed up, especially if mom and dad paid for this expensive school. Some college students have even sued their alma mater for not guaranteeing a job when they graduated.
I do not claim to be a parenting expert. I develop students and student leaders. But, allow me to comment and offer some common sense.
We live in a day of "encore problems." We expose our kids to so much so early in their life that it becomes difficult to engage them as they move into adolescence. They have been on trips and vacations, attended amazing ballgames, and they own incredible technology by middle school. What more is there to experience when they grow up? The problem is, the "more" that they want is likely an unhealthy amount.
Parents and teachers must navigate this "affluenza." We must figure out how to pace our students, exposing them to measured amounts of possessions and appropriate experiences as they mature. Often, they get exposed to things today before they're emotionally ready for them. Most elementary kids have watched a sex scene on TV, on a computer, or at the movies. Most have watched violent acts and murders, or have seen people do illegal drugs. It's tantalizing.
What To Do
In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how difficult it is to lead kids today, when there is too little or too much money. Obviously, a family living below the poverty line finds it difficult to raise kids well, because their focus is mere survival as they are living paycheck to paycheck. On the other hand, upper to middle class families find parenting hard because they cannot honestly say to their children who beg them for a new iPhone, "We can't afford that." That moment requires an emotional conversation, where the parent explains to the child why it's helpful to learn to delay gratification.
Yeah. Good luck with that conversation.
Research tells us that an income of about $70,000 is the median income to make parenting neither too hard because of poverty, nor too hard due to wealth. Outside of those lines, we will have to learn to pace our kids. This means our job may change, and we might meet the following sceneries:
- Pace the sequence of possessions and experiences, allowing for a bigger and better one, as they mature. For instance, you might plan a trip across the state for them in elementary school, a trip across the U.S. when they're in middle school, and a trip overseas when they're in high school.
- Don't fall into the trap of comparisons. Other parents may win brownie points with their kids because they give them too much, too soon. Those kids are "wowed" in the moment, but are over-exposed and may have difficulty managing expectations as young adults. Do what's right, not what's popular.
- Always have a reason for every "gift" (possession, experience, trip, etc.) that you give your child. Have a plan, to progress into bigger and better "gifts" in the future. I even explained my plan to my kids by the time they reached fifth grade. They realized there was a method to my madness and they "got it."
- Prepare to have meaningful conversations with your young people. Get ready for emotional exchanges as they learn to wait, to listen, to handle envy of their friends, and to save up their own money, perhaps, before getting what they want. This is what maturity is all about.
Just remember, leading students is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, it's a pace, not a race. Pace yourself. Pace your kids.