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January 3-9, 2007

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'The Price of Privilege'

Photograph by Nina Zhito
High cost: Many overprivileged children simply feel empty.

All and Nothing

Marin County psychologist Marilyn Levine explains the price privilege exacts from our kids

By Joy Lanzendorfer


The children of the wealthy are everywhere these days. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are always in the gossip columns. On MTV, 16-year-old princesses pout about their million-dollar birthday parties, and other rich teens star in their own faux-soap opera. Wealthy teenagers even go on talk shows like Dr. Phil and Oprah to explain their lives to the audience.

In the North Bay, we have our own share of affluent teenagers. There are dozens of private schools filled with teenagers who drive luxury cars, wear designer clothes and have an army of tutors to help them get into Ivy League schools. But unlike the wealthy teens you see on TV, these kids are usually articulate, high-achieving and polite. And many of them are also unhappy.

At least that's according to Marin County clinical psychologist Madeline Levine. For the last 25 years, Levine has been treating teenagers in her private practice for everything from drug addiction to eating disorders to clinical depression. She says that affluent teens are more depressed and anxious than teens from any other socioeconomic group, including the very poor. Wealthy adolescent girls can be three times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than other teen girls, and substance abuse rates are significantly higher among wealthy boys. On top of that, affluent adolescents have twice the rate of anxiety of most teenagers.

Last summer, Levine published The Price of Privilege, a book based on observations from her practice. The book sold so fast that it went through nine printings in the first four months.

"I either hit a nerve or my editor wasn't that confident in me," she laughs, seated in her comfortable Kentfield home. "This problem is an epidemic. Everybody knows kids who are in trouble. Everybody knows that kid who slammed the Maserati into the wall or overdosed on methamphetamines."

All over the North Bay and especially in Marin County, the book is causing a sensation. Parent groups are organizing around it and teachers are discussing it in the classroom.

"There was an unbelievable amount of buzz about the book, especially at the beginning of the school year," says Michael Dibley, a physical education teacher at Redwood High School who has taught in Marin County for 19 years. "When I saw the excerpt from the book in the paper, I knew it was going to be a big deal. It's like somebody finally put on paper what I've been seeing all along."

Poor Little Rich Kid

Like any mental-health issue, the reasons behind this issue are complex. However, Levine believes it boils down to lifestyle and parenting. While these teens have everything handed to them, they are under pressure to achieve outstanding goals. Their worlds are highly competitive and the stakes are intense. In many families, nothing better than a top school or straight A's will do.

As a result, their parents are overinvolved when it comes to academics and underinvolved when it comes to other parts of parenting, such as disciplining or shaping moral character or spending unstructured time with their children, according to Levine.

"The underlying problem here is the sense these kids have that they are loved conditionally based on their performance," she says. "Every week, I have kids in my office crying, saying, 'Mom is going to be so upset, Dad is going to kill me.' Why? Because they got a B instead of an A."

Spencer Shubert, a 16-year-old student at Redwood High School, says he sees this kind of thing all the time among his friends.

"The biggest pressure is gradewise," he says. "Some kids are not smart enough to get straight A's without studying really, really hard. There's lots of pressure to succeed and go to a good college. A lot of smart parents may not have the smartest kids."

On the other hand, many of these kids have access to their own credit cards or are given money by their parents. The excess can leave them jaded and unsure what to do with themselves, and that can lead to drug use. Shubert says drugs are fairly common at his high school.

"A lot of kids say they're bored," he says. "Their parents give them a lot of money and they have nothing to spend it on except for drugs. So that's what they spend it on."

These teens grow up believing that the most important thing in life is appearance. They must look and act perfectly no matter how they feel on the inside. After a while, all the emphasis on how things look can lead to a sense of hopelessness and blankness.

Levine remembers treating one young girl who took these feelings out on her body. She carved the word "Empty" into her arm with a razor blade.

"The most common thing I hear in my office from the kids is, 'I'm fake,'" says Levine. "The surface of things always look good in rich places. The lawns are always perfectly manicured, the houses always look beautiful. But when you get to what's going on beneath these kids' T-shirts, there's not much happening inside."

Hover Craft

It's not surprising that wealthy, smart and talented people would want their children to be as successful as they are. But while there are some exceptions, more often than not children of successful people possess ordinary talents and modest intelligence. Genetically speaking, nature tends to correct extremes.

"There's this thing called 'regression to the mean,'" says Levine. "If you are very smart, you are at one end of the bell curve. Nature wants to get back to the middle. So if you have an IQ of 160, it's very unlikely your kid will have an IQ like that."

Too frequently, parents don't want to believe this about their children and try to correct the correction. Some parents become disciplinarians while others try to be supportive by getting overinvolved in their kids' lives.

Overinvolved parents have been called "helicopter parents" because they hover over their children. They are the ones who call their child's teacher over every grade and are involved with the most trivial school assignment.

The behavior has become so common that professors at universities are now getting calls from helicopter parents demanding to know why their child didn't get an A in a class. In fact, the Associated Press recently reported that some parents are even trying to control their child's job hunts by showing up at job fairs to hand out their child's rÈsumÈ to potential employers.

Computers make parental overinvolvement easy. Only a few years ago, parents checked in with their child's progress once or twice a semester. Now they can monitor it on a daily basis, seeing grades as soon as teachers post them on the web.

"The parents e-mail us a lot," says Dibley. "Sometimes it's just a checking in e-mail, and sometimes it's, 'What is due next week in my son's geography class?' Too often, they are doing what the kid should be doing."

Parents can also be more excited by what the child is doing than the child. If a kid shows an aptitude or interest in sports, for example, it's common for parents to invest thousands in private lessons and tremendous personal effort to push the child to excel in the game.

Dibley, Redwood's former athletic director who has coached varsity girls basketball for 11 years, has seen firsthand how invested parents can get in their daughter's interests.

"I have seen times where the parent wants it more than the child does," he says. "The parents will be all gung-ho and the kid just wants to play with her friends. Often, she'll start playing soccer around fourth grade, so by the time she gets to 10th or 11th grade, soccer is all she knows and she wants to develop new interests. So she will back out."

Many of those girls, he adds, could have easily played college ball. After all, all that pressure and encouragement does help the child do well, but it can also discourage her from trying new things. Levine counseled a 13-year-old Marin teen who was a nationally ranked tennis player. The girl was miserable because she had lost interest in the game and didn't know how to tell her parents. She needed a psychologist to help her break it to her parents that she wanted to try skiing instead.

Climbing Ivy

The stakes get even higher for affluent teens when it comes to getting into college. Competition for places like Stanford and Yale gets tougher every year. Some parents begin training their children for college from an early age. They get their children into expensive private schools and keep them there until graduation from high school.

Private schools thrive in the North Bay. There's the Branson School in Ross, which enrolls 320 students and costs almost $30,000 a year. In Sonoma, the Sonoma Academy enrolls 200 students for $23,000 per year. And Blue Oak School in Napa charges its 150 students $15,000 a year in tuition.

Marin, of course, has more private schools than either Napa or Sonoma. In the list of the 40 largest private schools compiled by the North Bay Business Journal, almost half are located in Marin. Of those, nine schools cost over $10,000 per year.

With that kind of investment in a child's education, it's no wonder parents want to see results. While getting into a good school comes with bragging rights for some parents, it also eases the fear that their child won't be able to survive without a good education.

"The ego of some parents is enormous, to say the least," says Dr. William Prey, a Marin psychiatrist who specializes in mood and eating disorders. "But in many cases, the high expectations are real. How can kids buy a house in Marin unless they make a good living?"

Even sensible parents can start pushing their child to get into a good university. Elyse Bouar is the mother of 12-year-old and 15-year-old girls. When her oldest child, Sydney, began to deal with college preparation, Bouar found herself getting caught up.

"I had to catch myself," she says. "I saw a lot of my friends go crazy getting their kids into private high schools and preschools, but we didn't buy into it. And then I started seeing it rear its head again around college, and I thought, 'My gosh, how are the girls going to support themselves unless they get a really good education?' I took it too far and started pressuring my daughter."

Luckily for Sydney, Bouar soon came to her senses and told her daughter that she just wanted to know that it would be OK if her daughter ended up in community college for two years before going on to a better university.

"I said it's really up to you, though," Bouar says. "It's not up to me to monitor you."

Research shows that there is no correlation between going to a good school and being happy. And while it's true that students who graduate from Ivy League colleges do end up making more money, some studies suggest that that may have less to do with the education they receive--or even the name-recognition of the college--than the fact that Ivy League colleges have first pick of the smartest and brightest young people, who are naturally going to be more successful anyway.

"Parents are sucked into believing that these things are incredibly important to their children's future, when they are really just marginally important," says Levine. "That kind of oversight is better reserved for character issues, moral values, teaching them to control themselves and finding out what they are interested in. There are tons of things for kids to accomplish during the course of adolescence besides getting into school."

Self-Less

While affluent adolescents can be very self-involved and selfish--even by teenager standards--they can also possess a curiously blank sense of self. They become so reliant on a public identity, they have had no time to develop their own autonomy, according to Levine.

"It used to be that when a kid came into my office and said, 'You tell me what's wrong,' it was a defense to keep from talking to me," she says. "But now when they say that, it's not a defense anymore. They don't know who they are. They aren't given that period of trial and error where they learn out of experiences who they are."

Without experimentation, affluent adolescents lose out in countless ways. So much is done for them, they don't know how to do the simplest tasks in life. Since their parents always lavishly praise their smallest achievements, they don't develop an accurate idea of what they are good and bad at. And because their every whim is indulged, they have no sense of giving of themselves and no connection to being part of a larger community.

So when these kids make it to college, they can find themselves ill-equipped to deal with life. It's daunting for them to do their laundry, make new friends and navigate harder classes. Depression and substance abuse can worsen.

Dibley, who keeps in contact with students after they graduate, often hears about students struggling in college.

"Lots of them have never had to fend for themselves before," he says. "They go to these schools on the East Coast where people are different and the weather is different, and they miss Marin. So they come home or transfer schools. They are not capable of taking care of a situation where they have complete control."

To write the book, Levine interviewed psychiatrists from all over the United States. She found they were seeing the same problems she was. In fact, Levine may be describing a new incarnation of an old trend. In the 1970s, Dr. Prey grew up in an affluent neighborhood of New Jersey with similar demographics to Marin County. He saw the same problems in his own neighborhood then that Levine is writing about today.

"The reason I got interested in psychology was after seeing how amazingly disturbed those kids were," he says. "At the time, I thought it was the result of the actions of the Me Generation, but what I'm seeing now is all shockingly familiar."

Prey agrees with Levine's take on the situation, except he believes that part of the problem may be genetic. Simply put, depressed parents often have depressed children.

"There may be some genetic loading going on here," he says, "adults with mood disorders passing them on to their children. I definitely see that in my own practice. The people I treat have a family history of mood disorders."

In any case, for Levine, The Price of Privilege was about talking to the parents of these teens and helping them become aware of their parenting mistakes so that their children would be better off.

"People need to be able to love the child they have in front of them," she says. "Not your sister's kid, not your best friend's kid. Your kid. We have to fall madly in love with the child we have been given and accept that our children will be different from us. After all, that is the heart of emotional development--feeling that we are lovable."


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