Materialism and Child Development
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 12:00 PM
Madeline Levine , M.A. Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of the new book, 'The Price of Privilege' was online Tuesday, August 1, at Noon ET , to take questions and comments on how over-involved parents, who relentlessly pressure their children, are creating a generation of kids that are facing mental challenges and often suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Levine, says "Kids aren't having the experiences that are mandatory for healthy child development- and that's a period of time to be left alone, to figure out who you are, to experiment with different things, to fail, and to develop a repertoire of responses to challenge."
The transcrpit follows below.
Madeline Levine: Hi, thanks so much for joining this discussion. I've just returned from Washington, NYC and CT and was overwhelmed by the interest and support.
I think many of us realize that we have reached a "tipping point" where the emotional problems of upper-middle class can no longer be ignored.
Adolescence have always presented challenges to their parents. But a "challenge" is very different that 100 percent and 200 percent increases in depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse. These kids will one day be our doctors, lawyers, caretakers and policy makers. Their mental health is obviously in their best interest, but it is also in ours.
What do you think about the trend toward uniforms in schools as a way of equalizing - at least to some extent - appearance and hence status? Do you think it works?
Madeline Levine: I like this question mostly because I think it's tough to answer for many parents and even tougher for many kids. Part of the "culture of affluence" that I talk about in Price of Privilege has to do with valuing material goods over real connection, individuality over community and reciprocity. So we're kind of all swimming in this same cultural ocean that says it's a really good thing to "express yourself" and of course for most of us this means our "own" clothes, hairstyles, etc. Not that we all look particularly different. Erik Erikson called it a "uniformity of differing." And so while kids insist that they be allowed to express their individuality, they all look rather alike (as do many of their parents in their own way)
I actually do like the idea of uniforms. While I think it's likely to meet a lot of resistance from kids, I also think it's a good message from parents that essentially says "We're interested in what's on the inside, not what's on the outside" And in my book, one of the major contributors to emotional problems among affluent teens is the constant pressure to "look good" in spite of the fact that all hell may be breaking loose internally.
How do you know how much is too much? When your child's friends are involved in activities- ballet, soccer, music lessons, etc.- your child will naturally want to try them, too. So how does a parent decide how much "unprogrammed time" their chld needs?
Madeline Levine: Great question and to the heart of many issues about kids. While psychologists may write books about kids, kids are not generic and what works well for one may be an absolute disaster for another.
That being said, kids in general are pretty robust. When I was young, we did our homework and then went out and spent hours playing ball and exploring without being "overprogrammed." Our most current research on knowing when enough is enough tells us that when kids are showing somatic symptoms, headaches, migraines, stomach aches etc. then they are stressed and trying to handle too much. But a very interesting body of research is telling us that while "overprogramming" may be a buzz word, in fact most kids can engage in a lot of activities without ill effects. The real problem seems to be when criticism accompanies their activities. The kid who is out practicing a skill that he or she enjoys is probably at little risk. But if there is a parent or coach on the sidelines cajoling, criticizing (and as we all know, even screaming and yelling) then many kids feel overwhelmed.
Kids are pretty good at reporting how they feel about an activity and of course, childhood is the time for exploring a range of activities to find those that are the best match for your child's interests and talents. Without hovering, critical, demanding adults around, most kids can engage in a wide range of activities. But no one knows your kid better than you do. If he or she seems overwhelmed, school work is suffering, there's no time for participation in the family or there are a lot of physical complaints, then it's time to step in and help teach your child about the value of balance in life.
What a scary article! Do you find differences between kids in different regions, urban versus rural, working parents versus stay-at-home parent, religions, etc., or is this a universal truth once a certain level of income is reached (at least statistically)?
Madeline Levine: Well, it's scary, but it's also optimistic in the sense that most kids continue to do well, and we've really been able to pinpoint those areas that are causing so much distress among kids - i.e., pressure and disconnection from family. Once we know the causes of an epidemic ( and this meets the criteria for an epidemic according to the CDC, Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta - oops, there's the scary part huh?) we are in a much better position to do something about it. In the Price of Privilege, I go over many of the ways in which parents can lessen the likelihood of their child being vulnerable to emotional problems such as consistent discipline, family involvement, and less intrusion into the lives of their kids.
Research has found no difference in the rates of emotional problems between mothers who work outside the home or stay at home mothers - urban and suburban no difference. To the best of my knowledge no one has studied rural kids. But for all other groups of adolescents, the rates stay pretty constant whether you live in the city, or the suburbs or whether mom works or not. Be interesting to see if rural kids fare differently. I think of them as having more responsibility at home, and this might make a difference, but we'll have to wait for more research to know for sure.
Having managed many young adults who grew up in affluent households, I have seen some successfully navigate the transition to responsibility quite well and others who were completely at a loss on how to conduct themselves or be a good employee. The biggest difference I could detect was the parent's willingness to let the kids experience the negative consequences of their choices--not just reward for positive behaviors. As a parent, I realize that it is difficult to not step in and "fix" problems, but I have had the biggest growth in my relationships with my kids by being there for them as they struggle and come through the hard times. I think the feeling of depression facing the kids outlined in your study is partly explained by a feeling of lack of control over their lives. Ownership of the negative results (of even positive behaviors) can lead to a sense of achievement and self-control.
Thank you for taking the time to do this chat!
Madeline Levine: Thank you and of course I love this question because it addresses one of the central points of my book, which is every time we inappropriately step in and soften consequences for our kids we deprive them of the opportunity to learn how to self-manage - among the most critical skills our kids can develop. The majority of teenage deaths are a result of failures in self-management - drinking and driving, overdosing etc.
I have a story in Price of Privilege about two boys in my practice who were working on their final paper and the electricty was lost in my community. Neither boy had saved his work (bet that doesn't happen again- natural consequences!) One boy stayed up all night and re-wrote his paper, the other handed his notes to his mom and while he went to bed, she stayed up and wrote the paper not wanting to deprive him of a night's sleep or experience the frustration of things not turning out well. This is real life and things often don't go smoothly. The kid who finds within himself the resilience and the creativity to solve disconcerting problems is at a far greater advantage, personally and out in the real world than the kid who anticiptes the world will somehow take care of his problems.
It's tough to see our kids struggle, it's also one of the greatest gifts we can give them. This of course doesnt' mean struggling alone with problems that are totally outside of their developmental capabilities, nor does it mean turning our back on their distress. We can be sympathetic, supportive, offer suggestions etc. We just need to allow our kids within that supportive environment to find that they have the resources to handle inevitable difficulties.
We tell our daughter that tests scores are not the important thing, that we don't care if she doesn't get an A and she will get into a good college even if she doesn't get perfect scores on her SATs. So we are trying to do the right thing. But our daughter has been academically competitive since she started kindergarten, so it comes from within. And living in Montgomery County she's been infected with the whole "must get into top college" thing. So sometimes it's not the parent's fault. Sometimes I think the academic environment around here is toxic, but it's where our jobs are so we're stuck with it. We just try to do our best to reassure and love her. Any suggestions for those of us who try to stay basically just involved parents? (One thing that's helped me is that I figure I did enough homework when I was in school- why should I have to do my kid's too? So I only help when I'm asked.)
Madeline Levine: Thanks for the laugh. I also often say "I passed tenth grade long ago!"
In traveling around the country, this was probably the mostly commonly raised issue. Basically that while parents may feel different, the pressure and culture in the communities they live in are so powerful and so pervasive that they feel helpless to effect any change.
I agree it can be tough and there are kids who thrive on academic challenge and are happy to be striving for top colleges. Kids are funny though. Having two out of the house, and one still home, I can see that while things I believed were important often were looked on by my adolescent kid in a dismissive way, as they got older they adopted the very point of view that they dismissed when they were younger. I think it was Mark Twain who said something to the effect that when he turned 21 he couldn't believe how much his father had learned!
I think it's important that you maintain your values and attitudes. Sometimes it feels like swimming against the tide, but I've also found in speaking with people around the country, that many of us are not as alone as we feel and that it's possible to find others in the community that share our attitudes.
In my book, there's a story about pulling my son off his "select" (ugh, even the word is obnoxious) soccer team when it became an abusive experience, and feeling like we were the only parents who didn't revel in winning the State Cup, regardless of the costs to our sons. But little by little other parents came to share our point of view and we all got together and began a lacrosse league where parents were mandated to simply watch the game and coaches spoke to our kids respectfully (and vice versa). It was scary for me at first. But now, more than ever, I'm convinced that their are legions of parents out there who are interested in a saner life for their kids.
Washington, D.C.: Can you suggest good gifts for kids that already have tons of toys, etc? I want to get my godson something for his birthday/Christmas, but I just don't want to get another toy.
Madeline Levine: Lots of questions about gifts so I'll answer this one and hope that it helps everyone who is writing in on this topic.
The endless stream of material gifts that kids get are often an exercise in limited creativity as well as a waste of money. Of course we all like something new from time to time, but kids at birthday parties are often ready to discard their gifts as soon as the wrapping is off.
My own preferred gifts have to do with experiences that my kids enjoy, that may or may not include my husband and myself. Since we have three boys, ballgames are often used. That can be a day out in the city, maybe a trip to a place they've heard about and wanted to see and then a game - perfect place with little pressure, lots of time and opportunity to talk casually. My middle kid is into theatre so I might get a couple of tickets for him and a friend. I guess the general idea is that I prefer to give "experiences" over "stuff." Also in the safety of my office, every kid I see wants more, not less time with their parents and so experiences that are unpressured but give allow for some pleasant, time with your child.
Rockville: I guess a lot of parents realize the problem but we don't know how to deal with it because the college admission is based on how your kid shines. The reality forces us to push the kids to their limits. Any comment?
Madeline Levine: Kids should never be pused to "their limits." Even as adults, most of us are very stressed when pushed to "the limit." Kids need encouragment and to be nudged maybe just beyond their comfort zone. This is where learning takes place. Think of your own life experiences. Did you do best when you were at the brink or when you were pushing yourself in an area you felt you had a good chance of mastering.
Remember that there is a zero correlation between the college your child attends and how happy they are in life. There is a college seat for every child who wants to go to college in this country. If your kid really belongs at Harvard that's terrific. The problem is, most kids don't and when they get pushed they end up with a host of emotional problems
Alexandria: I really appreciated your delineations of involved, over-involved (guilty!) and intrusive parents. Any suggestions for controlling the over-involving urges as we enter a new academic year (with a 14 and 12-year-old)?
Madeline Levine: Thanks for the honesty! It's tough isn't it to step back, even when we know it's in our kids best interest. Just remember that if kids don't have small falls, they're in for a big one. Everytime you step back and don't become overinvolved you help your child develop the very skills that they will need to ultimately be successful out in the world. On my bathroom mirror I have a sticky that says "The goal of parenting is always autonomy, not dependency." I see it every morning and it helps remind me of exactly what my job is.
Remember that early adolesence is a particualrly trying time (many would say the most trying time for parents) exactly because kids are screaming for separation but don't yet have the tools (or the prefrontal cortex development) to always show good judgment. Try to save your over-involvement urges for times when safety is the issue.
Chevy Chase: Have you found that the "culture of affluence" affects boys and girls more or less equally? Alternatively, is one gender apparently more susceptible?
Madeline Levine: I think that the culture of affluence affects boys and girls differently. Girls in general tend to internalize, that means that they keep unhappy feelings to themselves more and as a result of higher rates of depression, cutting, eating disorders etc. than boys do. Boys on the other hand tend to externalize or "act out" Their substance abuse rates are higher and they are more likely to endorse antisocial behavior. Interestingly the three-fold increase in anxiety disorders are the same for both boys and girls.
Also girls are under much more pressure to look good, be thin, dress well etc. Duke Univ coined the phrase "effortless perfection" to describe girls who were supposed to be "girly" at the same time they were supposed to be high achievers- all while making it seem easy. These girls had extremely high rates of emotional problems as well as lower levels of academic success
Arlington: I read somewhere that kids are interested in "extreme sports" because their parents don't know as much about the sport and therefore cannot intrude or hover. Have you seen any studies on why kids do extreme sports?
Madeline Levine: No I haven't seen any studies. But clincially, I know that kids who want separation and a lack of "hovering" from their parents are inclined toward Xtreme sports. In my own community lacrosse became extremely popular, at least in part, because none of us Westerners knew a thing about the sport. So there was a decided lack of correction and criticism from the sidelines which many of the boys told me was the best part about playing the game
Washington, D.C.: Is there anything that can be done to counter declining motivation in middle school? My stepdaughter will start eighth grade at the end of the month, and it's been very sad to watch this once enthusiastic student come to loathe school and school work over the last two years. Last year there were many struggles over homework and we definitely felt that she put very minimal effort into school work. Her father and I try very hard not to hover and, as you advise, to let her feel the consequences of her actions, but I'm very worried about the path she seems to have started down.
Madeline Levine: You said declining motivation, which makes me think that at one point your stepdaughter had more motiviation. I would suggest a psych battery looking for either depression or perhaps a learning disability. Don't stand by, something is going on when a kid "loathes" school - could be academic, personal or interpersonal.
Ellisville, Mo.: Any advice on how to raise my three young children? I am well-educated (I have Ph.D.) but didn't feel too pressured as a child. I was not pushed into sports, ballet, etc. but was told that education was the most important thing. We had a comfortable life and were well-off but certainly not very rich. My husband makes nearly $1 million a year and we have $3-4 million in assets. Before having this money I would have pushed my kids to study but now that I know they can be financially comfortable I wonder what my priorities should be for them? I just want them to be happy and don't think they need to be pushed in education/soccer, etc. or have to get into Harvard. How do I balance my expectations for them?
Madeline Levine: Interesting question. Because you and your husband are financially comfortable you've lowered expectations since your kids will have money. Of course you know how Warren Buffet feels about this- give kids enough to start a business or whatever, but not enough so that it robs them of motivation.
I think that your expectations for your kids should have more to do with their particular strengths and interests than your financial status. Sounds like you did well without being pressured. As I say over and over in Price of Privilege, you must see the child in front of you. As your children grow and come into their own, their particular interests and abilities will become more apparent. In the meantime, love them, support them, follow their lead, enforce fair discipline. We know that happy kids are kids who feel that they are valued for who they are, not what they do.
Silver Spring: As an upper middle class teen myself, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for how to deal with the type of kids you described in your article. I fortunately have "involved" parents, as well as a very strong personality that enables me to resist the pressures surrounding me. However, I see teens who are so obsessed with their SAT scores and getting into an Ivy that it is sometimes hard to be around them in school. How should I react to them without sounding jealous or preachy?
Madeline Levine: Thanks for writing in. I've been amazed at the number of teens themselves who have written to me. Good for you for resisting unhealthy pressure. You might want to have some discussion with kids who seem to feel the way you do. Sometimes it's tough to be the one who takes a different stand. You're right about not being preachy. Stick to your own values, throw around ideas with your parents who sound like they've done a good job!
Madeline Levine: Thank you all so very much for participating in this discussion. While I had been thinking about writing this book for several years, I really needed to wait until there was enough hard data, enough research to be certain I wasn't just talking about my own community, but about communities across the country. Now that there is a significant body of research on these kids, it is very helpful to me and important to the public discourse that it goes back to the level of individual communities and individual experiences. The successful resolution of social problems is rarely a question of "one solution fits all." For everyone who contributed, I appreciate your input as it expands the possibile solutions for approaching a very disturbing reality about those we care about most- our children.
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