I’ve not received such a specific blog topic request before: I’ve been invited to discuss this important, research-based infographic put out by the Northwestern online counseling center: Mental Health of Affluent Teens: The Challenge of Prosperity. I don’t have a lot of teens in my life at the moment but the information in this chart follows the contours of my own affluent past pretty well.
That my demographic cohort and I were told ad nauseum how we could be and do anything we wanted to be and do when we grew up made me, quite frankly, afraid to grow up. I imported this vast yawning of opportunity as the obligation to do everything. After all, this is America; not only do we have it all but there is no excuse for not changing the world..by the time you’re 30. With many (material) blessings come much responsibility. I’m not surprised that wealth, according to the infographic, is only a positive force during the very beginning stages of life. It’s not that those years aren’t absolutely crucial for forming the rest of your experience of your days; it’s precisely the whiplash that comes from being set up so well only to dash against the rocks by being expected to receive everything you need as a human being from the material abundance of this society and the guilt resulting from self blame of not measuring up to standards impossible to meet even if you were to get your non-material needs met.
Family dinners were regular but obligatory for me growing up; they felt forced and painful because of the isolation marooning my family members from one another and the deep sense of burden I felt I was to my overworked, overstressed parents. There was a lot of pressure toward good behavior, good grades and graduation – I’m not sure if my parents liked school or not, either, but because of the way our society is set up, they likely feared their children not having the credentials to avoid poverty or homelessness and so they felt they had no choice but to coerce the next generation into unengaging and oppressive schooling to prepare us for unengaging and oppressive employment, which saps the energy necessary to raise happy, fulfilled kids.
The resultant emptiness is readily filled by passive entertainment provided by outsiders all too willing to mold impressionable minds and souls. The topical diversity of mainstream media lulls us into believing we’re being well-roundly educated, much like the school day, complete with “different” subjects…and mounds of homework. The external pressure to do well – and by “well” here, I mean that if you don’t get into honor’s math in 7th grade, you won’t get into honors math in 8th grade, and if you don’t get into honors math in 8th grade, you won’t in 9th or 10th or 11th or 12th and then you’ll die poor and lonely – further distances kids and teens from ourselves resulting in ambivalent commitments or commitments made out of fear of being what society deems worthless (that is, poor, weak and dependent). I never learned how to fail well and to this day, I not only attempt to hide or mitigate my failures, but I feel shame for others’ failures, even if they don’t exhibit signs of any embarrassment themselves.
Though I am the master hider, the suggestion in the high-structure parenting practices in the infographic to limit privacy is one I disagree with. I had chores/household responsibilities as a kid, limited access to money and, as I said, regular family dinners. I benefited from the first two even if I squawked and complained at the time and longed for a more connected time around the table in the evenings. My culture more so than my family encouraged more social involvement – and by encouraged, I mean guilted us debilitated if we weren’t transforming every drop of spare time into bettering the world for others (no matter how well the world was for us). Still, when I’ve voluntarily engaged in community activities, which took me a really long time to do, I’ve found a sense of ownership and self respect I had not when pressured by parents or anxiety about being a bad person to contribute to society.
But limiting privacy? I have to admit, I’m worried that, much like Matel’s “Hello Barbie” and the always-watching Elf on a Shelf, limiting youths’ privacy only prepares them for accepting as normal the mass surveillance of the rapidly rising police state. I won’t get too much into this so as not to derail us here, but, as the first line of Robert Scheer’s new book, They Know Everything About You (which I’ll be reviewing for Real Change soon so stay tuned!) reads, “For democracy, privacy is the ball game.” I’m not saying never check in on your teens – that’s a great way to leave them isolated and contribute, along with the pressure to constantly perform to others’ standards, to the equally rapid rise of depression and anxiety (which I experienced much of as a teen and still struggle deeply with today). But limiting privacy does not teach teens healthy boundaries or how to set them out of love rather than resentment nor does it foster internal motivation: following “the rules” when being watched does not make you a trustworthy person; not needing rules or supervision to behave in trustworthy ways does.
Ultimately, what the infographic suggests: unconditional love in word and action, non-judgmental listening, relaxed and fun time together and protection from parental anxieties are a parent’s job, not one of many strategies to choose from. I experienced none of these “high-warmth parenting practices” until much later in life. And now, having fun together is very difficult to do (it feels like a “waste of time” I could be using to “take responsibility” for the world since I’m wealthy and that’s the wealthy man’s burden is). Also, the “I’m proud of you’s” are very difficult to receive – “What are you proud of?” is my autonomic thought. As in, “what I have done to make me worthy of love?” I don’t solely blame my parents for this, though. They can’t be expected to combat on their own this culture’s emphasis on productivity and being functional and on its message that the most visible is the most valuable. Teens shouldn’t have to be famous or even superstars in their own lives to not be invisible to their parents; people, not just teens, need to be seen and known. Don’t leave that up to the NSA.