The Price of Privilege

I had been looking forward to reading The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine for a long time.  I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Mostly, the disappointment is my own fault.  First, I had already read a lot of the points Dr. Levine was making, although, possibly, mostly in books that came after hers.  Her main point is that the “culture of affluence” which encourages measurable achievements at the expense of other ways of growing, is unhealthy for us and for our kids.  Yup, got it.  She talks about prioritizing your emotional needs as a parent.  She even uses that analogy  about the airplane – you know, when they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping your kids or other helpless people nearby?  And that’s like parenting, because you can’t help your kids if you can’t breathe yourself?  I’ve read this in just about every parenting book I’ve read thus far.

Second, and most predictably, I wanted more social analysis, and less private focus, as I always do.  This is another book where I feel like the real question is, “What’s wrong with society?” and the answer is, “Here’s what you should do to make sure your own kids don’t have these problems,” which doesn’t address the real question.

A good portion of the book is spent sort of justifying why we should care about the problems of kids who have so much, financially speaking.  The most interesting point she makes in this direction is that when we look at poverty-stricken kids, we see all these problems, and say, “Oh, it’s because the parents can’t afford to be better parents,” but look, the parents who can afford quite a lot fuck up, too.  I think if she had gone further, here, and discussed how the very models of parenting we have, with which we judge the parenting of poorer parents and find them lacking, are fucked up.  The book is largely about how the focus on achievement is bad for kids, but what do we say is wrong with poorer kids (besides the violence and the crime)?  The fact that they don’t score well on standardized tests, make good grades, get into Harvard.  So if we can agree that scoring well on standardized tests and getting into Harvard are not evidence of well-raised children, maybe we can re-examine our standards of what good parenting is and better respond to actual challenges faced by parents in all economic conditions.  But she doesn’t push it that far, and a lot of the “rich people have problems, too” discussion sounds a little empty.  And I am a person who believes that rich people have problems, too.

She cites studies that show that money has a limited effect on emotional health.  And there have been a lot of them.  At one point in the book (and I’m so mad that I didn’t write down the page number, because I ALWAYS write down page numbers; I am obsessively nerdy even when I’m just writing down stuff for my own amusement), she says, “[O]nce you have enough money to meet basic needs, money does not make you happier.”  Her point is that pushing your kids to become Harvard MBA holders who go into investment banking and make scads and scads of money is not necessarily a good strategy for making your kids happy adults.  But again, I think that sort of glides over what financial security really offers and how one gets it.  Because this is a country with a rapidly disappearing middle class.  There are increasingly fewer ways to make enough money to meet basic needs securely (and, admittedly, there is an expanding definition of basic needs) and the ways one can make enough money are increasingly competitive and time-consuming.  The pressure to put on a happy face, get the best grades by hook or crook, win the tournament, etc., etc., etc.  create exactly the kind of kids who can be successful in the corporate world.  Without acknowledging that the parents who push their kids in this way may in fact be responding to real world conditions, the exhortations not to worry about getting rich ring a little hollow.  And again, I say this as a person who has absolutely no intention of pushing Zoe or any other kids that may or may not come along this way.  I intend to be very much non-pressure-y when it comes to achievements and to help her develop a sense of self above all.  But I’m also going to be honest with her, and honest means saying, hey, getting financial security is hard, and lots of people will be competing with you to get it.

This is not to say that the book didn’t have plenty of good things in it.  I tend to write about the things I didn’t like because I don’t have much to say about those things I did like.  So I’ve decided that from now on, when I write about a book like this, I’ll include a section of things I got from it that I liked.  Here they are:

Gleanings:

– Pressuring your children to achieve certain, public, easily quantifiable benchmarks – good grades, participation in trophy-winning sports teams, etc. – is not a good way to parent.  Your kids need to develop a sense of self and then decide which achievements are important to them.  Your job is to support that process.

– Emotionally healthy parents – especially mothers, where mothers still do the lion’s share of the parenting and the emotional work in a household – are important.  Take care of your own emotional needs so that you can take care of your family’s.  And because your own emotional needs are important in and of themselves.

– Financial comfort isn’t the only kind of comfort there is.  It’s an important one, but it’s possible to have problems even while being financially comfortable, even problems caused by or strongly correlated to being financially comfortable, like, say, marrying a rat bastard and counting yourself lucky to have landed him because he makes bank.  And it’s important to take those problems seriously.

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