The Perils of Privilege

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An interview with Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Dr. Madeline Levine has been treating teenagers in primarily affluent families for over 25 years. She started seeing a pattern in her patients: they were suffering from “addictions, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and assorted self-destructive behaviors” in excessive numbers.  Most often, the young adults complain of an overwhelming sense of “emptiness.” The most alarming part is she traces a lot of these conditions to well-intentioned parents. Though our children are young, and our “socio-economic” status varies wildly, all parents can learn from Dr. Levine’s specific insight, in the name of helping a generation of future teens! — Laurel Moglen, TMC Managing Editor

What are the typical pitfalls for affluent parents?

Research finds that children and teens from affluent homes suffer disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, psychosomatic disorders and self-mutilation.  These findings have not been found among young children from affluent families. This gives the parents of young children a unique opportunity to educate themselves about what seems to contribute to high rates of emotional problems just a few years later. There are two well-researched factors that seem to drive problems for kids in affluent homes:

Pressure – typically kids from affluent families have educated and high achieving parents. In general this is considered a protective factor for kids.  But when academic pressure starts to crowd out the other developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence, kids don’t develop the personal, interpersonal and coping skills needed to navigate life successfully. Kids come with a variety of interests, skills and capacities.  If all we do is focus on academic success, we leave out many of the factors that are known to make kids more successful – creativity, collaboration, innovation, self-reflection and self-control. We also need to support and value a wide range of interests.  Every child has a “superpower”- that may be math or science or music or athletics or social skills etc.  Our job is to help our children find their superpowers and, when necessary, help them compensate for their weaknesses.

• Disconnection – Kids from affluent homes report feeling “disconnected” from their parents at startlingly high rates – actually at the same rates as kids from inner city families.  Affluent parents, on the other hand, feel that they have close relationships with their children. This disconnection is probably the result of many factors, not the least of which is our constant running around with our kids for extracurricular activities.  Driving three kids to three different activities after school, rushing and frantic, few of us are able to offer the quiet, connected, restorative time that kids need.

In your book, The Price of Privilege, you talk about the hazards of over-involved parents. Could you expand on that?

Every time we do something that our kids are either capable of, or almost capable of, we interfere with their growing independence. For example, if you’re running late and insist on dressing your children, something they are perfectly capable of doing themselves, then you’ve taken away one more opportunity to function independently.  What I mean by “almost” capable of, is the child who puts on his shirt backwards or inside out or who thinks that pink polka dots and orange stripes is a perfectly reasonable combination. A gentle pointing out is all that is needed here.  Kids feel good about getting their shirt on by themselves whether it’s backwards or forwards.  Let them enjoy these moves towards self-sufficiency without making them feel inadequate.

Parents often jump at the first hint of interest or talent in some activity to push their kid into organized lessons.  Your daughter pirouettes across the room and you suggest dance classes.  Your son successfully kicks a ball and you haul him into a pee-wee soccer team.  A critical job of young children is play and we need to make sure we give them the time and the encouragement to do this every day.  Not everything has to be organized.  As a matter of fact, unstructured play is one of the most important things you can facilitate in your child’s life.  Many kids finding their budding interests are extinguished by premature “lessons.”

What are a few examples, on the other hand, of a parent who is involved in a way that supports their child’s independence?

All children should have some kind of chores.  After all, we all want our children to go out into the world and function in the community.  Your home is that first community and it is important that children, from an early age, understand they are valuable members with something to contribute.  Each of my three sons, in turn, walked around the house with a dust rag from age 3 on, until they could tackle more challenging chores.  A five year old can bring plates or at least placemats to the table, put their clothes in the hamper and carry laundry into different rooms.  Most chores are for themselves (ie- pulling up the bedcovers) but some should also be for the whole household (putting toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms.)  This helps teach kids a “we all pitch in together” kind of mentality.

Kids learn best when presented with the “just right challenge.”  This means that instead of simply repeating what they already know, we encourage them to move just beyond their comfort zone.  If your young child successfully puts together a puzzle with 8 pieces, try one with 10 or 12.  Offer encouragement and gentle help if your child is getting too frustrated.  Model yourself that challenge is interesting and exciting to you. “It’s not going to be easy to learn a new language, but I really want to be able to speak  a bit of Spanish.” or “I really don’t love going to the gym, but it’s good for me and I feel better afterwards.”  Let kids know that moving forward can be challenging, but that is where the excitement of learning new things happen.  Let them know that you have their back if something is overwhelming.

In your book you talk about another way to help support kids by encouraging them to problem-solve. Why is it so important? 

First, let’s be clear about the way that children ages 3 to 6 think. Their thinking is concrete, self-referential and fantasy-based.  They can’t yet put themselves into someone else’s shoes, nor can they think abstractly.  Towards the end of the age period children are entering a stage where they can begin to think logically but even still, their thinking is dominated by how they feel. It is not a coincidence that kids this age can’t do algebra or read Tolstoy regardless of how “smart” they may be.  Their brains are simply not yet wired for complex tasks.

However, we can help our children with simple problem-solving.  It helps if the problem to be solved is something within their world.  For example, “we’ve run out of space on your shelf for your fairy dolls.  I wonder what we can do with the rest? Let your child come up with ideas ( this may include just jamming more dolls on the shelf) and see the outcome of her choices.  They may fall if too many are on the shelf, or she may see that if she moves her legos into one of the bins in her room, she frees us shelf space.  The idea is to try and hold back a little while your child tries to come up with solutions.  Don’t jump in if she immediately turns to you for the solution.  Let her know that you have faith in her ability to come up with a solution.  Gentle suggestions after she’s put in some effort will help expand her repertoire. Puzzles are still one of the best ways to encourage children to see how to solve problems and they generally are enthusiastic about puzzles.  Try to keep learning hands-on.  This is how kids learn best.

Your book was inspired by large numbers of teens coming in and in your words, feeling “empty.” For parents with young children, what should be the guiding principles of successful parenting so to prevent our young children from feeling “empty” in their teens?

The task of growing up is to craft a sense of self that is robust, capable of meeting the inevitable challenges of life and finding meaning in both work and love. This is a tall order and is really the job of a lifetime.  However, we want to feel that when our children leave home at about age 18 they have the basics in place. Here are some of the things that we can do to ensure our children are “successful” not simply at age 5, but also ten and twenty years later when they walk into their own adult lives.

• Love your child unconditionally – this does not mean everything your child does is okay.  What it does mean is you see your child clearly enough to know they are miraculously unique and precious.  Let them know you feel that way often.

• Don’t project your own unmet needs or wishes onto your child.  If you wanted desperately to be a ballerina, pay attention to how you respond to your child’s dancing.  Don’t push him or her to do something that isn’t of interest or is only of minimal interest.  You can always go take ballet lessons yourself.  Follow your child’s lead about what interests him or her.

• Don’t shy away from discipline.  The parenting coin has two sides: love and discipline.  They are inseparable if you’re going to be a good parent.  Many of us have difficulty with discipline because it means we may have an angry child on our hands.  You have to be able to tolerate your child’s anger. It is because you are able to set limits and insist on self-control that your child will internalize the ability to set limits and exert self-control.  This is the insurance policy you’ll be very glad you bought when your child is a teen.

• Insist that your child be good for something besides himself.  We have had enough of self-centered, entitled children.  They make poor friends and even poorer spouses.  The sun and moon do not revolve around your child.  Make sure they contribute.  This helps them to feel that their lives are meaningful.  Kids who are over-indulged can never be satisfied. Make sure your child learns to wait for things, earns things, and values what he or she has. Take them along when you do some community service.  If you don’t, you should.  It models a generous spirit and a concern for others – traits we’d like to see developed in our own children.

Madeline Levine, Ph.D. has been a practicing clinical psychologist in Marin County for the past twenty-five years. She is the author of several books including the New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege; as well as Viewing Violenceand See No Evil. She is also the co-founder of Challenge Success, an organization that works with schools, families and communities to bring practical , research-oriented solutions to the challenges of education and parenting. She lives in California with her husband and three sons.

*this post was originally published March 2012

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn