Suniya Luthur has spent a career studying the vulnerabilities of students within what she calls “a culture of affluence.”
‘Her research suggests a U‐shaped curve in pathologies among children, by class. At each extreme—poor and rich—kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction.’ Rule breaking takes different forms starting in seventh grade. ‘The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating and theft.’ The affluent kids also exhibited higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and anxiety than their economically disadvantaged counterparts.
She identified two major causes of distress among these affluent kids:
- The pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits. These children internalize their parents’ achievement oriented values and priorities and their self worth becomes tied to external yardsticks of success.
- Isolation from their parents: Ms. Rosin in the Atlantic article listed below writes, ‘Children had the sense that their parents monitored their activities and cared deeply about how they were spending their time, but that didn’t translate into feeling close. Many children felt they were being prodded toward very specific goals and behaviors by parental cues, some subtle, some less so.’
William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, writes in Excellent Sheep that elite education “manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”
Ms. Rosin concludes in this poignant article, ‘In these days of assumed meritocracy, where children can be turned into anything, we admire them as displays of remarkable engineering, to be tweaked and fine-tuned into bilingual perfection. What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about them we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at. Admitting we don’t entirely know why teenagers kill themselves isn’t an invitation to do nothing to prevent it from happening. It’s just a call for humility, a short pause to acknowledge that a sense of absolute certainty about what children should do or be or how they should operate is part of what landed us here.’