Madeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.
It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with in Overwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community. Levine suggests that too many of them are ill-equipped for the expectations and roles that await them.
Levine commenced her project on a hunch that her practice was seeing ever-greater rates of depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, bad behaviour, selfishness, fragility, self-destructive habits and all-round unhappiness in her wealthy Marin County community than in the previous quarter-century she had been a psychologist. Her initial calls to colleagues around the U.S. confirmed that her observations were not merely local, but seen in affluent communities around her country. Further research she has since carried out paints a disturbing and surprising picture – affluent teens now exhibit greater levels of psychological ill-health than their peers on the next tier down the social scale, in the middle classes. This was a mystery and counter-intuitive to Levine, as it would be for most of us. Surely, young people who have so many opportunities, who have the best education, extra-curricular activities, the nicest neighbourhoods, the most conscientious parents with the resources to support their every endeavour, would be far better off than any other group of teens in the country? These are not, after all, the kinds of teens that feature in the usual accounts of educational failure, dysfunctional families and chronic, entrenched disadvantage that, sadly, still tell a tale of wasted talent in our communities.
Levine’s book points out that although we know the saying that money cannot buy happiness, we still act as if it does. Therefore, we think that more money always = more happiness. We also know that parental involvement in a child’s education is positively correlated to that child doing well. However, Levine argues, we have made a fundamental error here, too. Some parents have misread this to mean that over-involvement in a child’s education, in which a child is constantly coached and shaped, scheduled and pushed, is necessarily better than some involvement. Worse yet, the developmental “tasks” of adolescence, which include, crucially, the development of an independent, autonomous sense of self, and a growing ability to manage one’s own life and solve one’s own problems, are interfered with when parents prematurely solve problems for their children, particularly those of the child’s own making (like not studying for assessment and then not doing very well.) Levine argues that:
“Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self. Autonomy, what we commonly call independence, along with competence and interpersonal relationships, are considered to be inborn human needs. Their development is central to psychological health. In a supportive, respectful family, children go about the business of forging a ‘sense of self’ by being exposed to, and learning to manage, increasingly complex personal and interpersonal challenges.”
Levine argues that over-involvement leaves her young clients feeling passive and empty, “the kind of anxious, overprotective, oversolicitous, intrusive parenting that has become commonplace in affluent communities actually diminishes a child’s sense of efficacy and autonomy.” In a neat analogy, Levine argues that while the parent of a three year old would never forbid their child from learning to climb small stairs, and then expect them to know how to climb seven flights, parents of adolescents, out of an instinct to protect their children from hardship or unpleasantness, can intervene at times when their children are making the mistakes that are necessary to learn about consequences and prepare for the steeper challenges later on as they take on full adulthood. Not having learned to climb the stairs, Levine’s teenage clients fall to pieces when they are expected to climb several floors up.
However, Levine is compassionate and attuned to the very real challenges and dilemmas of parenting in communities where adolescence seems so high-stakes and there is a relentless emphasis on the external signs of success and achievement.
Levine argues that while high grades and success at extra-curricular options are well and good, if they happen, they should happen as a natural outgrowth of a fundamentally more important task that faces young people – – to develop an authentic sense of self. Levine calls this an ‘internal home’: “the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world. It is where kids – -where all of us – – retreat to when we need to ‘pull it together’, ‘think it over’, or just take care of ourselves.” It is the basis of moral action and the ability to respond to situations effectively and with integrity, as well as personal wellbeing. This is the result of children feeling like they “own” their lives, who have grown a sense of self-efficacy by having developmentally-appropriate experiences, thereby seeing that they can “have an impact on [their] world.” This is distinguished from ‘self-esteem’; Levine argues that self-efficacy is more important, as it stems from real experiences of the child acting “appropriately in [their] best interest”.
Levine is not against high academic achievement and the self-discipline necessary to learn well. On the contrary, she is advocating for a shift in values and parenting that genuinely cultivates a commitment to deep learning. If high grades are the result of the young person pursuing learning out of increasing levels of engagement, curiosity, passion, and skill, if, in short, the young person wants to pursue this learning out of a genuine, internal motivation, then they have achieved an important milestone in their growth into competent adults. As she observes, “Ultimately, motivation for any venture needs to feel like it comes from inside. When it does, it feels ‘true’”. If, however, the achievement of high grades is pursued just for the status and to please others (usually anxious parents) and that there is no genuine love of learning, if, in fact, the teenager will take any shortcut they can to get the grade, even having their essays professionally written, hacking into the school’s grade database to change their marks, or having their parents apply pressure to their teachers, then something has gone seriously awry. In these cases, the grade, once taken as an indicator of learning, has come adrift of the activity it was meant to report on, and has become, instead, a kind of fetish.
Levine dissects the values of communities where this is happening and encourages her readers to resist unhealthy cultural pressures in their own parenting – something which she acknowledges is extremely hard to do. After all, adults are also encouraged to assess their self-worth according to a narrow range of materialistic and performance-based criteria.
Levine is clear that the task of parenting teenagers is daunting and complex. Her tone is never accusatory, judgemental or dismissive. Instead, she challenges her readers to examine their priorities and values, and to critically examine the toxic aspects of the “culture of affluence”. She also encourages her readers to put their own genuine self-development high on their list of priorities, so that they can model a reflective self who acts with integrity and kindness, and responds to life’s set-backs appropriately.