Sometimes ‘poor little rich kids’ really are poor little rich kids

January 5, 2016

Ethan Couch, 18, is shown in this handout photo provided by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department in Fort Worth, Texas, December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Tarrant County Sheriff’s Dept/Handout via Reuters

The “affluenza” defense of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old Texas boy who killed four pedestrians while driving drunk, has received a great deal of ridicule, much of it justified. That said, it would be foolish to allow an absurd effort to minimize one teenager’s responsibility for a horrific tragedy to obscure growing evidence that we have a significant and growing crisis on our hands. The children of the affluent are becoming increasingly troubled, reckless, and self-destructive. Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these “poor little rich kids.” But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems.

One of us has spent about 20 years studying and documenting the growth of dysfunction among affluent youth, and the other has written about one large source of the problem. High-risk behavior, including extreme substance abuse and promiscuous sex, is growing fast among young people from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents. These kids attend schools distinguished by rich academic curricula, high standardized test scores, and diverse extracurricular opportunities. Their parents’ annual income, at $150,000 and more, is well over twice the national average. And yet they show serious levels of maladjustment as teens, displaying problems that tend to begin as they enter adolescence and get worse as they approach college.

What kinds of problems? First, marijuana and alcohol abuse, including binge drinking. Studies show that drug and alcohol use is higher among affluent teens than their inner-city counterparts. And surveys have revealed that full-time college students are two and a half times more likely to experience substance abuse or dependence than members of the general population. Half of all full-time college students reported binge drinking and abuse of illegal or prescription drugs.

Second, though crime is widely assumed to be a problem of youth in poverty, the data suggest comparable levels of delinquency among well-off suburban students. What does differ is the type of rule-breaking — widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens.

Finally, there is a psychological toll. The proportion of affluent youth indicating serious levels of depression or anxiety is two to three times national rates, and levels of eating disorders and self-injurious behaviors far exceed national averages.

So substance abuse, antisocial behavior and psychological disorder are the “what” of affluent youth. What about the “why”? In the case of the Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, published reports suggest a great deal of neglect by parents who were preoccupied with marital problems. Undoubtedly, parents’ lack of limit-setting can play a role; some upper-middle class parents fail to enforce appropriate discipline, even for egregious misbehaviors. As many as one in five affluent youth believe that their parents would bail them out if school or legal authorities threatened serious disciplinary action.

But parental indulgence is by no means the only factor. The peer culture in upwardly mobile communities plays a major role, actively endorsing substance use. High levels of drinking and drug use, especially among boys, is linked with high status in the peer group. It’s the popular kids who chug six-packs after school football games.

Yet, more than parents or peers, we believe that the major culprit is pressure experienced by youth to distinguish themselves, to be at the top.  Don’t just play soccer because it’s fun — make the traveling team. Don’t just learn to play piano — be featured at the recital. And don’t just do well in school. Outcompete your similarly privileged schoolmates to get the prized slot at Harvard, or Stanford, or Swarthmore.

The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives. They feel a relentless sense of pressure that plays out in excessive substance use, and also in the other problems we’ve documented: high anxiety and depression about anticipated or perceived achievement “failures,” and random acts of delinquency.

It’s true that pressure to do well in school and get into a prestigious college is shared by many teens. But maintaining the mantle of success is especially urgent among the affluent. Upper middle class youth want to meet the standard of living they are used to — in their own homes, and in the homes of their friends in the community. What’s more, achievement of their extremely lofty goals is enticingly within reach. Parents fervently acquire whatever coaching is needed to help their children achieve distinction — whether it is in test scores, tennis skills, or musical performance. And when they are given all manner of expensive help, the kids feel compelled to excel. Everything they do is aimed at achieving the “best.”

Parents are not the only ones creating lofty, often unrealistic expectations. In high-achieving schools whose graduates commonly head to the best colleges, students can face inexorably high standards of performance from teachers, guidance counselors, and sports coaches. They are expected to excel in each of their activities toward achieving that glowing resume.

Why is it that high socioeconomic status brings more risk for young people today than it once did? First, the ultimate goal of getting into a good college is much more competitive today than it used to be. Among top-tier colleges, the number of applicants has doubled or tripled over the last five years, with the number of international applications increasing 25 percent over the last four years.

Second, the range of possibilities that life offers has exploded. There are so many things to do, and so many ways to be, and there is nothing stopping you (if you’re affluent) except you, yourself. Affluence leads people to believe they are wholly responsible for their own success or failure. The wealthier people become, the more they believe that they can control most aspects of their lives and design exactly the kinds of lives they want. They come to expect perfection. This is a double illusion, since neither complete control nor perfection is possible.

What can we do to begin to stanch these problems? First, we, upper middle class parents, need to be resolute about appropriate limit-setting, and not succumb to fears about incurring the wrath of our teenage kids, or allowing a blemish on the child’s school records. Second, we have to watch very carefully for our achievement expectations. If our children come to feel that our love for them is integrally tied to the splendor of their accomplishments, they will inevitably become deeply anxious about failing, and disappointing us. Third, we have to watch out for our own emotional well-being. A psychologically depleted, exhausted parent cannot rise to the many challenges that parenting inevitably demands. And affluent parents tend to be more reluctant than others to admitting to distress: after all, those at the top should be better able to cope than others.

We also urgently need action from educators. K-12 schools need to look at the degree to which they truly value their students’ all-round well-being, and not just their achievements, grit, and perseverance. They need to help their students see that there are multiple options for them in life, rather than pushing toward the most challenging, competitive colleges and careers. Students need to assess the price they could be paying for the relentless pursuit of affluence, status, and power.

Ultimately, we need change in higher education. One of us has argued for a lottery system in admissions to highly selective institutions, in which all applicants who are “good enough” to succeed get their names put in a hat, with the winners drawn at random. Such a system would prick the pressure balloon of high school, since students would no longer have to be the “best.” They would have to be good enough…and a little lucky.

The problems of kids in affluence are real; their vulnerabilities derive from multiple sources and not just from “irresponsible parents”; preventing these problems requires work at multiple levels, including families and communities, schools and universities. Many of these upwardly mobile youth will assume positions of power and influence as adults. For their own sakes, and for the sakes of all they will come to influence as adults, we must attend to their struggles thoughtfully, and with compassion. Above all, we must avoid dismissing them as simply being “spoiled rich brats.”


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The drive for excellence and competition also increases our way of life so reducing that drive does not produce only benefit for the world. Being able to properly teach people to handle their stresses in healthy ways (studying ways to control one’s emotions or funneling anxiety or stress into a hobby or some other healthy-release) can maintain the quality of life-lifting competitive drive while keeping rich people and their kids from driving drunk and unfairly ending someone else’s life.

A lottery system would reduce the drive to compete and would penalize those who put in the work but are unlucky. Surely there are many ways that luck plays out in life but introducing one more will only lead to further dissatisfaction with the system among those who do everything the winners do but don’t get their lucky number picked.

Regardless, agency is a factor in all of this and people inherently know right from wrong. Killing four people while drunk driving wasn’t a choice for this kid; getting drunk in the first place was. When one gets drunk, unless they’re completely unaware that inhibition and reason disappear when under the influence – which only a pre-teenager could claim, they choose to accept whatever consequences result from their drunken behavior – whether they’re conscious of this choice or not. When tragedy occurs and someone else’s life is ended and the victim’s family has that part of them ripped away for the rest of their lives, justice must be served on the person who made the choice who led to so much pain and harm for others totally undeserving.

I hope they throw the book at this kid.

Posted by navyseal3341 | Report as abusive

I will just estimate this but if someone wants to correct me please do. I think my point will stand up. First, the children of the affluent are few. I mean, in this country 2% are rich, about another 10% are affluent and 88% poor or low income. So there are few of these affluent children and so time spent trying to cure their ills is wasted time. They are not important. Secondly, the affluent are typically the best minions to the wealthy. They are not affluent because they are high achievers, they are affluent because they lack morals and are willing to uphold the ruling classes contentions on the world and the state of human beings. While some affluent people have earned their success most have not. So, these are not the children of the best and the brightest, they are the children of the biggest suck ups. You know these suck ups where you work. The bottom line is that these kids are not important and will not affect our future in the least. So, stop wasting time. Throw the little creeps in jail when they break the law and the rest of us will go on with life and will do the real work the parents of the miscreants can’t do.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

A Revolution might help eliminate this problem.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Best thing for him?, lock him up for a long time.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

This kid looks like Baby Trump.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

You compared cheating in school to carrying a gun in your fourth paragraph. Do you really think kids cheating in school is as bad as kids carrying guns?

Posted by RoshamBoBo | Report as abusive

The great equalizer: reinstate the draft for everyone graduating from high school, boys and girls. No exceptions for kids going to college. Make them serve their country for one year before doing anything else.

Posted by Gapmt | Report as abusive

Sorry, I cannot feel sympathy for this young man. Off to jail he goes, and don’t pass go! Four people killed because of his drunken driving, only makes me sad for the victims of his crime.

Posted by rv6672 | Report as abusive

In which fantasy world do you reside in which 150.000 a year is “affluent”? That kind of income certainly doesn’t pay for private school. A nice car cost at least half that….

Posted by HydrangeaDogs | Report as abusive

One of the interesting aspects of the Cosby sexual assault allegations is the number of people who have taken the position that the claims against him are in fact only a reflection of his wealth. It isn’t that these people seem to particularly believe in his innocence but rather that due to his wealth they have taken the stance that any accusations must be false or at least suspect. I wonder if they realize that they are creating another form of affluenza where ultimately the rich need no fear the legal system unless the evidence is devoid of all ‘normal person’ involvement as any witness, victim, prosecutor, etc. are all potentially biased due to suspect’s wealth.

The legal system is currently based on the premise that you get the justice that you can pay for, ie: has any typical case seen a judge allow a refutation of DNA science except for O.J.’s dream team. Big money and deep pockets are allowed to stall, divert and in many cases break the law with the full knowledge of the court for no other reason than they simply have the resources to do so. Judge Boyd who presided over the Couch case claimed that she did not accept the Afluenza defense but rather objectively wished to rehabilitate Couch however in her past was a strikingly similar case where a 16 year old from a poor family had killed one person while driving drunk and he was sentenced to 20 years. Boyd claimed that the difference was that in that case the youth had stolen the vehicle whereas Couch had stolen the vehicle from his father which on the surface suggests that in her mind what made Couch a better option for leniency was that the theft from his family had little financial impact.

Exactly how much more does society need to provide for the comfort and ease of the wealthy? Critics complain about affirmative action in education and employment all the while ignoring the single largest examples of non-qualified opportunity via wealth legacy in both Universities and the business world. Are we seriously prepared to go down that final route where wealth not only buys you societal privilege but actually excuses you from legal culpability?

Posted by TWSX | Report as abusive

The affluenza defense seems to run afoul of a very longstanding legal principle:

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

Is there any real difference between the affluenza-afflicted of today and the best and brightest who brought the global and U.S. economies to the edge of default and depression. We are still dealing with the damage they caused with very little prosecution of their misdeeds and greed.

Posted by ThoseWhoServe | Report as abusive

Is there any real difference between the affluenza-afflicted of today and the best and brightest who brought the global and U.S. economies to the edge of default and depression.

We are still dealing with the damage they caused with very little prosecution of their misdeeds and greed at the individual or corporate entity levels.

Posted by ThoseWhoServe | Report as abusive

If parents are held liable for their kids crimes, things would be different.

Posted by worldscan | Report as abusive

Thanks for an informative five minutes on affluenza. Although the writers allude to the hereditary nature of this disease, they fail to acknowledge that kids imitate adults and that this disease is passed from both parents to their offspring as homozygous dominant alleles. Sterilizing the rich is the only cure that stops this lethal gene from propagating in the species.

Posted by RanaSahib | Report as abusive

Clearly the parents did a terrible job in this case. I know the authors meant well, but by using him as an example, they probably made people less sympathetic to the problems of the children of the elite. There are real pressures, even for well brought up children. Students rack up numbers of advanced placement classes that nobody was expecting twenty to thirty years ago in the hopes of gaining admission to colleges which seem to have quite arbitrary admissions policies. A lottery would be helpful, but I can’t see elite colleges operating in a way that would interfere with the admission of the children of wealthy alumni.

Posted by Courgette | Report as abusive

I am supposed to feel sympathetic to children with privilege and resources to have comfortable lives. As a minority myself, I am amazed that we as a country should give these kids more attention, when Black and Latino youth make up a huge chunk of the prison population for drugs and mostly non-violent crime. Black and Latino youth are arrested for drugs in much higher numbers than children of privilege. Their education is subpar and their access to resources to better their quality of life are few. I cannot believe that this was published. I agree with the commenter, a revolution is necessary.

Posted by pomellyop | Report as abusive

Baby Trump maintains innocence, blames “losers” for America’s woes.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

We really are the only country DUMB enough to care for spoiled little rich kids.

Send Mr. Affluenza to jail, and trust me, his attitude will change.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

@brotherkenny4, spot on!!!!!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

I don’t think prison is the answer of any troubled youth. While affluenza may affect a small percentage of affluent youth, the problems of poverty and neglect affects a percentage of the rest of the country’s youth and there are more of them. It is time to invest in all our youth equally. Problem should not b e overlooked in grad school as non of these kids are perfect until the become teens there are signs way before then.

Posted by mymom51 | Report as abusive

He must have some skills and common sense, or he would not have money.

Oh wait. He inherited the money. Just like MOST rich people.

Anyone who still thinks that the wealthy in America represent some bright, ambitious class of movers and innovators…. time to turn off the AM radio for a day or two.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

In response one of Solidar’s comments:

A new infographic from All Finance Tax highlights the richest people in the world.

Most interestingly, the majority of billionaires – think Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison, to start – are self-made, while a minority inherited the whole of their wealth.

If you are going to make comments like – “Oh wait. He inherited the money. Just like MOST rich people.” – then you should probably check your “facts” before posting.

Posted by skeptic59 | Report as abusive

Now “mommy dearest” is complaining about her cell in jail in Texas! Is she just another who was raised to be what we used to call a “spoiled brat”?
That appellation applies to these “poor little rich kids” in many instances. Too much money, too much freedom, too many parents, teachers, others – up to and including judges and law enforcement – who are willing to give these kids a “break” that they do not deserve.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

I must concur with the majority of posters here– to hell with the useless affluent obedient suck-up cannon fodder. Grow a pair and be a good human being, or don’t. We don’t care if you all die.

Posted by JaylikeBirdz | Report as abusive

I have always believed opportunity (impunity) more than need (poverty) was the more powerful driver behind crime; with numerous additional behavior factors (rage, impotence, and basic sociopathies) sufficent to confuse the casual observer and political sound bite.

Teaching morality and ethics does not appear to be something we are doing well. While establishing values and moral foundations is primarily a family problem; I am hard pressed to believe that we can’t introduce that into our school curriculums in a manner that does not threaten Freedom of Religion. Ours is a society built on Judeo Christianic principles, which are even shared in many regards by Islam.

What would be wrong with stressing the importance of these values to our children during their education? While a return to the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree may seem “kitchy”; there was a valuable life lesson there. What is wrong with teaching in the school systems that a reputation is a valuable asset that can be ruined by bad behavior? Etc.

Happy New Year to all.

Posted by VSWilsonCanessa | Report as abusive

If they would just have to face the same consequences as the rest of us plebes, and not be able to buy their way out of every scrape from traffic tickets to murder, they might have some respect for themselves, others, and rules. However, people like you will continue to make excuses for them, find someone or something to blame for their horrendously undisciplined actions, and the rest of us will continue to suffer from their uncivilized choices. They don’t strive to be the best, they pay smart kids to take their tests for them. They apply to colleges on legacy. They pay for their status, they don’t strive to achieve anything. I have taught at university for over a decade and even if the rich kids are caught on camera cheating, they get a pass when daddy writes a check. Save your tears for the really talented kids who don’t get a chance because rich kids like Mr couch killed them before their talents could be realized.

Posted by ShanaSmiles | Report as abusive

navyseal3341: Competition increases our way of life? It certainly seems like that would make sense. Unfortunately, multitudes of studies performed in all walks of life (from studies of children interacting, to many many studies of industrial productivity) have repeatedly shown that competition is destructive to productivity, and especially far inferior to cooperation. Be careful trusting your intuition. It evolved only to handle living in a small nomadic tribe on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago. It is more dangerous than useful in modern life.

Posted by otakucode | Report as abusive