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Your Child’s Happiness

What Price, Privilege?

The middle school I used to teach at distributed “Grover Gold” to students whenever they helped out by running an errand for a teacher, for example, or cleaning up without being asked. This pretend money could then be redeemed in the school store for assorted items. However, at the end of the year, my desk drawer always contained the original amount of “Grover Gold” I’d been allotted because I refused to pass it out. If students asked me what they got for helping, I simply said, “A warm fuzzy feeling inside.”

According to Madeline Levine, PhD, author of The Price of Privilege, “Grover Gold” is exactly the kind of well-intentioned, but misguided practice that’s detrimental to our children’s well-being. While the hope is that external rewards will make a child feel good and this high self-esteem will result in greater success in life, the reality is that it’s actually preventing her from becoming internally motivated and capable of forging her own identity.

Susan Brown of Commonwealth Parenting explains that in the late 1960s a psychoanalyst in California published a book on the psychology of self-esteem. Although the author’s beliefs weren’t based on any research or empirical evidence, the theory appealed to parents and educators alike because it outlined something everyone could do: Tell your kid he is special. Therefore, all these years later, Brown explains, “We continue to think it’s our job to make our children feel good, but it’s not.”

When you combine this inflated sense of success with increased pressure from parents, who are alternately emotionally unavailable or intrusive, it transforms the most advantaged kids in this country into individuals with unprecedented levels of mental illness and emotional distress. According to Dr. Levine, “America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.”

I know what you’re thinking. How can this be? Parents are more informed and involved than ever before. Unfortunately, as Dr. Levine points out, given the frantic shuffling of children from one activity to the next, parents are “everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” We feel like we are always doing for our kids and yet studies show that teenagers, in particular, yearn for more quality time with their parents.

The Price of Privilege argues, “Raising children has come to look more and more like a business endeavor and less and less like an endeavor of the heart. We are overly concerned with ‘the bottom line,’ with how our children ‘do’ rather than with who are children ‘are.’”

Think about it. It has been widely published that families who eat dinner together frequently have well-adjusted children, yet parents continue to over-schedule their days, believing their child’s involvement in the extra-curricular activities will benefit them more in the long run.

Another area where people ignore the obvious is that money doesn’t buy happiness. Affluence, defined by most marketing magazines as household incomes of more than $75,000, means that a quarter of all families in the United States enjoy privileges not dreamed of in other places in the world. As a result, Dr. Levine explains, “the umbrella of ‘education’ can become quite broad for affluent families, and often includes a host of travel and cultural opportunities unimagined by less financially well-off families.” Still, dissatisfaction prevails.

Let’s be clear. Money doesn’t equal materialism. The problem starts when one places greater value on wealth, status, image, and material consumption than such things as friends, family, and work. Researchers at UCLA claim that during the sixties and early seventies, students cited “becoming an educated person” or “developing a philosophy of life” as their reasons for continuing on to college. Beginning in the 1990s, “making a lot of money” has become the more prevalent incentive. Sadly, Dr. Levine notes, “this shift in values among college students takes place at the same time that rates of depression, suicide, and other psychological problems have risen dramatically among this group.”

It’s a shift that might be starting in middle school and high school. “Take parents rewarding children with money whenever they earn good grades,” Amy of Richmond says. As a mother of two teenage boys, she says, “We always tried to teach our children that it’s their job to go to school and do the best they could. They don’t get paid for it.”

What can we do to stop this? Susan Brown contends that we need to be more mindful of the fact that “emotions and relationships don’t work like the rest of our fast-paced world.” They take time and effort. We must coach our children through the problem solving process as opposed to rescuing them from heartache or buying them things to make them feel better.

Lucy of Richmond, mother of two adult daughters and one teenage son, believes, “We rob them of the satisfaction of earning the fruits of their labor. If we buy them their first car and then their first house, when will they ever know the value of these privileges?”

Brown maintains we also need to be more cognizant of the fact that “home is a microcosm for the rest of the world.” She suggests jobs and chores so kids understand that the quality of their lives comes with a responsibility to contribute to the whole. Otherwise, when the real world gets tough, as Lucy points out, “They give up too easily; they come home too quickly.”

My daughter, a fourth grader, was asked to assist kindergarteners with returning books to the school library. Since only a few children were selected, she was thrilled by the added responsibility. When I picked her up the first afternoon, she showed me the candy the librarian had given her. Apparently, she’d be paid daily in sweets. While she delighted in the treat, I was angry my child had been cheated out of the excitement of this honor. Why couldn’t that be enough? Why must our society, in its quest for greatness, continue to neglect the very process through which it’s obtained? Trial, error, and hard work.

Victoria Winterhalter
Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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