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The Price of Privilege

21Jan 2008

This week I have been gone five days for a series of business meetings. I am writing this as I travel home to be with my family. I have been reading, and have decided to review, a book entitled, The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. Dr. Levine is a psychologist who practices in the affluent area of Marin County, just north of San Francisco.

Ironically, I have been gone from my family for business this week and I now have to look in the mirror regarding the concerns she raises about parenting in an achievement-oriented home. Dr. Levine raises numerous valuable issues and points, but I will focus on some of the foundational issues related to parenting in the upper middle-class and affluent subcultures. (Quotes are followed by page numbers in parens.)

“Raising children has come to look more and more like a business endeavor and less and less like an endeavor of the heart.” (14) Dr. Levine cautions that more and more parents focus more on “results”, (and specifically achievement), rather than a relationship with their child.

Research is indicating a growing high at-risk group: preteens and early teens of affluent families. The incidence of depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and unhappiness is increasing at a staggering rate (20% of early teen girls are depressed.) Related to this, a subculture among affluent preteens and teens has developed which values substance abuse, rule breaking and sexual activity.

There are two primary core issues which underlie the dysfunction in this preteen and early teenage subculture:

a) the pressure to achieve, and b) isolation from parents.

Dr. Levine believes parents are “over-involved in the wrong things, and under-involved in the right things, both at the same time.” (28) She views inappropriate involvement in children’s achievement as intrusion, and an unavailability to support our children leads to isolation. “Support is about the needs of the child; intrusion is about the needs of the parent.” (12) “It is when a parent’s love is experienced as conditional on achievement that children are at risk for serious emotional problems.” (30)

“Being free enough from your own preoccupations to be attuned to the needs of your particular child is one of the greatest contributions to their healthy psychological development you can make.” (34)

Ouch. That one hits too close to home for me. I have to honestly say that often I am so preoccupied with my work that I am mentally and emotionally unavailable to both my wife and children. I need to correct that pattern in my life.

Dr. Levine then moves into a section of the book entitled Materialism: The Dark Side of Affluence. I like the way she differentiates between having significant financial resources and ‘materialism’.

“Materialism is not the same as having money. . . Materialism is a value system that emphasizes wealth, status, image, and material consumption.” “Materialism [as opposed to being wealthy].. does predict a lack of happiness and satisfaction.” (45)

Why? “When money becomes overly important, it crowds out other goals, endeavors, and interests; work, friendship, marriage, hobbies, parenting, spiritual development, and intellectual challenges can all fall by the wayside.” (47) “Materialism is about how easy it can be to choose the simple seduction of objects over the complex substance of relationships.” (48) So the focus and enamor with money, possessions, image and pleasure lead us to make choices that eventually depletes us from the more substantive, fulfilling, and lasting aspects of our lives.

The comments and observations Dr. Levine causes me to stop and reflect on my life. ‘What do I need to do differently to demonstrate to my family that I am more interested in them personally than I am about “achievement” (either theirs or my own)? I know this. I am going home and spending the evening with them – talking and listening. Any work that I could do will have to wait.

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