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The Dark Side of Wealth: Risks associated with growing up in an affluent family – Risk #3: Low self-esteem

21Oct 2007

The third theme I have observed in financially successful families is that many of their children and grandchildren struggle with poor self-esteem and low self-confidence.  Now let’s get this straight from the beginning — although I am a psychologist, I do not believe that feeling good about oneself is the goal of life (nor of parenting or education). 

Self-esteem (that is, having a positive view of one’s self) is not a goal, it is a result of other good things in your life.  Self-esteem is not global; it is situation specific and is the result of being competent.  As we develop competencies in our children, and they begin to demonstrate these competencies, their confidence grows (in that skill or area of application).   Thus, telling a child that they are “good” or “special” has virtually no impact on how they feel about themselves.  But teaching them various skills – how to dribble a basketball, learning to play the piano, learning how to bake cookies, riding a bike, balancing a checkbook, learning how to play chess — that is how a child’s self-esteem is built.

Why, then, do many descendants of wealthy or successful individuals struggle with feeling good about themselves?  There are a number of factors to consider.

First, we must understand that “skill” is relative.  Learning to play chess at age four or five is a relatively impressive feat.  But even a bright seven year old girl who has advanced skills typically will be no match for a sixteen year old ranked player, and her skill will pale in comparison to her father’s, who is an internationally ranked chess master.  The same is true for budding athletes, developing entrepreneurs, academic scholars, accomplished musicians — you can take any field.  When you are growing up in a family where your parents or grandparents are known as one of the most successful individuals in their respective field of expertise (business, technology, entertainment, sports) — your skill level, no matter how good you are, probably can’t compete with the level of success your parent / grandparent has achieved.  Thus, feeling good about your skill level is difficult because “I’ll never be as good as . . . ” (which may or may not be true in the future, but currently your skill level has not developed to level of your parent’s at the height of their career).

A second issue which contributes to struggles with self-confidence in descendants of successful families is the reality of life called “regression toward the mean”.  If you think about a bell-shaped curve, the issue becomes clearer.  The bell-shaped curve visually represents the fact that most people are average (average height, average intelligence, average musicians, etc.) and this is the large group in the middle of the curve.  There are fewer above average individuals (and similarly, fewer below average) and even fewer really skilled individuals — in any area of life.  This small group of really skilled individuals is represented by the small “tail” at the far right hand side of the curve.  These are the people who have the combination of natural ability, access to training, the requisite personality characteristics, and possibly the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time — to be highly successful in their field.  And, as reality demonstrates, in comparison to all of the people in the world, there aren’t many of them (e.g. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jerry Seinfeld, Yo Yo Ma).  Although the pure number of individuals may seem large, in comparison to 6.5 billion people, the relative percentage is extremely small.

“Regression to the mean” speaks to the statistical reality that if a person (or family) is on the extreme end of the bell-curve (either end, actually), the probability is huge that their life will be closer to the mean (the average) than their successful family member’s experience.  Let’s use some practical examples.  If you take two really tall people and they get married and have kids, it is more likely that their children will be closer to average height than it is that they will be taller than their parents (although it is probable they will be above average in height).  Or if two extremely athletic individuals get married (one is a pro basketball player and the other competed in the Olympics in track and field), the likelihood of their children being as successful in athletics as they were is quite small.  In fact, if they have multiple children, it is quite probable that one of their children will just be average or slightly above average in athletic ability — while another child might be fairly good. 

The same pattern exists regardless of the field — computer science, business success, physical attractiveness, artistic ability.  Children of extremely talented and successful individuals are more likely to have less skill and / or success than their highly successful parents who are in the top 2% of their field.  This is the reality of life.

Thus, if children or grandchildren of successful families are trying to reach the same level of skill, ability or success in their field — the probability is low that this will occur.  And since, for most of us, “success” is relative to whom we are comparing ourselves, the child or grandchild will most probably come up short.

The third factor that contributes to low self-esteem among wealthy family members has to do with the issue of competence.  Gaining a skill or ability takes time and effort to develop, even if you have natural ability.  Time and effort require time availability (you can’t practice the piano or tennis if you are busy doing other things), self-discipline and perseverance.  Add to the mix of all of this the factor of overcoming obstacles and challenges (“if it were easy, everybody could do it”).  Do you see where I am going?

Successful parents want their children and grandchildren to be successful.  But often we may try to make the path to success a little easier for them — get them the best teachers and coaches, and the best facilities or equipment.  This is helpful, generally.  But at some point virtually all successful individuals have to struggle, they have to “push through” challenges in order to reach their goals.  And if parents or grandparents don’t let them do this — which will probably include the risk of failure (or not succeeding at the task) — the child’s true ability won’t be able to develop, along with the accompanying character qualities.

So what am I saying to parents and grandparents in all of this?

1. It is highly likely that your children or grandchildren will not be as talented, skilled or successful as you are. (I can hear a lot of mental comments like, “You don’t know my grandchildren” or “Not if I can help it.”)

2. Help them develop their own unique skills and abilities rather than just focusing on the areas where you or other family members have been successful.

3. Realize that children and grandchildren will naturally compare themselves to you and find themselves “coming up short” in comparison.  Thus, it will be important for you to not constantly make references of comparison, and it will be helpful to focus on developing and recognizing their unique abilities.

4. Work with your child to build competencies in a variety of areas of life.  When we are compentent to handle a variety of situations, and practice doing so, we develop confidence.  When we have skill-based confidence we tend to feel good about ourselves.

5. Communicate your love and acceptance for children and grandchildren regardless of their level of achievement.

There is a lot to say and expand upon regarding #5 — especially to those of us who are fathers.  But I will save that discussion for another day.

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