| It's not that money is making kids unhappy. It's the values emphasized in affluent cultures, Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of "The Price of Privilege," told Danville parents at St. Isidore School last week.
Too much weight is put on performance based-achievement - like grades and sports - at the expense of principles that can't be so easily measured, like integrity and empathy, she said.
"The kids I see don't have a robust sense of self. They don't know who they are - they know who everybody else wants them to be," said Levine, a psychologist who works with youths in Marin County.
Studies show upper middle class adolescents are more likely to be depressed, suffer from anxiety and engage in sociopathic behavior than their middle class and working class counterparts, she explained.
And instead of getting better, as they get older, it tends to get worse. For example, 30 percent of Ivy League girls are "cutters," explained Levine, who is working on a project at Stanford called Stressed Out Students.
"These are kids who, on the surface, look good and have everything. But roll up her sleeve and literally, metaphorically she's bleeding," she said.
In general, something happens between elementary school and high school that makes parents anxious about their child's failure - and kids are increasingly less able to tolerate that pressure, she said.
"Last week I had a dad in my office with a high school son. He says to me, 'I would give my left testicle to get my son in to Harvard,'" she told the audience of mostly privately educated elementary school parents. "What do you say to that? Yeah, it's funny but it's also incredibly serious."
Despite the heavy subject matter, Levine used humor to illustrate that what's good for kids has become incredibly distorted. The irony she alluded to is that many of these parents mean to help their kids but are making things worse.
Parents laughed frequently, listened quietly, took notes and asked questions.
One example she gave the audience came from watching a mother and her toddler son walk down the street in Upper East Side Manhattan. It was a snowy day and the toddler was impeccably dressed, she remembered.
Like any toddler would, the boy jumped into a pile of snow and splashed slush on himself. Seeing that his perfect outfit was ruined, the mother burst into tears.
Levine found out later she was crying because the boy was on his way to his preschool interview. The mother's thinking was: If he doesn't get into the right preschool, how will he get into the right grade school? And if he doesn't get into the right grade school, how will he get into the right high school?
"This is not working at all," Levine said. "It's not in line with the developmental needs of kids."
She used other examples to discourage parents from using money as a reward for good grades and shopping as a method of coping with emotional issues.
And after acknowledging some would disagree with her, she also advised against getting kids involved in traveling sports teams. The teams teach kids that "the job of a parent is to passively sit and watch" while children perform, she said.
In her family, traveling sports teams meant Saturdays would be spent with the family split apart, her husband across the Bay with one son and she and another son miles away at another event.
St. Isidore's Principal Jean Schroeder said Levine's observations were poignant, considering some of the values in the Danville area.
"I didn't grow up with a lot of what I watch going on here ... I don't think our parents know how to say 'no,'" Schroeder said, adding she knows they have the best intentions.
Adolescents need parents to be an "inviting, listening presence," to help them feel they are understood, and to promote a strong sense of humor. This provides them with "a core they can go to when things get tough," Levine said.
The future will look brighter for everyone if we teach that integrity is just as valuable as high test scores, and empathy is just as worthwhile as the winning soccer goal, she said.
These kids will grow up to be our future political leaders and top executives, she added. "I'm hoping for less Enrons and more compassion in the world."
**** Madeline Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege" will speak at Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek at 6:45 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 6. Cost is $15; educators are free. Call 974-4981.
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