Recent events have revealed a disturbing culture of excessive drinking, partying, and  sexual assault among our country's most elite prep schools.

Some of this can be attributed to the context of the 1980s, during which popular films glamorized drinking and misogyny. Our collective understanding of sexual harassment and sexual assault then was pitifully inadequate.

But this harmful behavior can also be attributed to the risks inherent for young people from affluent, privileged families. According to decades of research, wealth is closely correlated with mental health and behavioral challenges in adolescents.

Privilege can lead to serious consequences

In The Price of Privilege, psychologist and Stanford professor Madeline Levine writes, "American's newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country."

Suniya S. Luthar is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has specifically studied students at elite schools. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, she explained that she and her colleagues "have recurrently found that students at such schools show higher rates of disturbance compared with average American teens. Their problems range from depression, anxiety and self-harm to random acts of delinquency and, yes, abuse of drugs and alcohol."

Affluence, it turns out, is not necessarily a good thing for our children. The insulation of privilege can hinder their ability to develop resilience, empathy, and mature decision-making. The high pressure that comes from successful, well-educated parents can strip them of independence and ownership.

"The best" may not be what you think it is

Parents often talk about wanting to provide their children with "the best"--which, more often than not, means the most expensive, most elite, and highest ranking. We want to give our children every advantage, particularly in education and extracurriculars.

But what if "the best" isn't actually best? If we want our children to become confident, healthy adults who contribute positively to society, we don't have to send them to elite activities or expensive schools. In fact, it may be better if we don't.

Psychologists and researchers agree that teaching your children certain values and skills, and modeling those values and skills for them, are invaluable for their maturation. They recommend prioritizing the following:

1. Teach your children social skills, especially empathy.

In one Harvard study, young people were three times more likely to agree with the statement: "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school."

When we emphasize achievement to our children, we de-emphasize service, kindness, and generosity. We teach them that communication and collaboration are not important skills.

Psychologists recommend talking to youngsters about the importance of caring for others and giving them opportunities to practice this. Modeling such concern for others will also set a powerful example for your child.

2. Encourage a strong work ethic.

Kids who become successful, hardworking adults often started out doing chores. "By making them do chores--taking out the garbage, doing their own laundry--they realize I have to do the work of life in order to be part of life," explains Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult.

Young people who learn to work hard from a young age are more willing to put in the effort to succeed, rather than expecting success to be given to them.

3. Let them fail.

Life's most valuable lessons come from failure. Parents often can't stand seeing their children fail, which is why they intercede to prevent the failure or to insulate them from any consequences.

But this is a huge disservice to our children. We need to give them the opportunity to learn that they can recover and learn from failure. Only then can they become more courageous, resilient adults.

4. Prioritize your family relationships.

Parents who have strong relationships with their children--and with each other--are providing their kids with the support and security they need to succeed. This security enables your kids to take risks and explore their passions, as well as build stable relationships of their own with friends, colleagues, and significant others.

Published on: Oct 3, 2018
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