The sentence of probation received by Texas 16-year-old Ethan Couch for killing four people in an impaired driving crash (alcohol and Valium) drew immediate -- and scathing -- criticism from across the land. And now new calls have come from the district attorney for incarceration.
What the sentence did not do, however was shed adequate light on the underbelly of affluence beyond a superficial stereotype of spoiled rich kids who get away with almost everything.
But it's not too late to try.
Dubbed a case of "affluenza" (defined by the co-author of a 1997 PBS special by the same name as "a painful, contagious socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more"), this tragic tale takes root in what a testifying psychologist, Gary Miller, referred to as Ethan's unhealthy relationship with his parents. They allegedly used him as a "tool and hostage" as they negotiated their own unsteady marriage.
Indeed, Ethan's defense argued that his rich parents had not taught him about consequences -- to wit, he was not responsible for the carnage he caused.
Isn't it always the parents' fault?
Not really, but research has yielded an understanding of how four different "parenting styles" (indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved) inform the outcomes of the parent-child relationship (Baumrind, 1991). These styles differ in the extent to which they are "demanding" and "responsive." In other words, they address what standards for behavior are established and expected by parents and how warm and supportive the parents are toward their children.
Significantly, each "style" has been linked to the behavior children will display as they grow and develop.
From widespread news reports and the statements of Miller, it is likely that Ethan's parents, who have a history of legal trouble themselves, may fall somewhere on the spectrum between indulgent and uninvolved. Taken together, these styles tend to produce children prone to feelings of disconnection and behaviors of concern, to say the least.
Arizona State University Foundation Professor Suniya Luthar, in her article "The Problem With Rich Kids" (Psychology Today, November 2013), says that children of wealth have serious internalizing problems springing from pressure for significant achievement. She offers, "The offspring of the affluent today are more distressed than other youth [and] show disturbingly high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cheating and stealing. It brings a whole new definition to having it all."
Not surprisingly, Luthar has found in her research that affluent teens are often more likely than their low socioeconomic peers to use alcohol and other drugs.
Sounds like self-medicating to me.
For her part, psychologist Madeleine Levine, in her book The Price of Privilege (HarperCollins, 2006) also makes a case that a mental health crisis exists among children of wealth, preaching about the needs of all children for connection with, and discipline from, their parents.
Which brings us back to mom and dad.
Uninvolved or overindulgent, neither quite fits the bill for the positive youth outcomes we seek, even if we believe we are acting in the best interest of our children. Allowing our kids to explore their world, all the while testing their abilities, or lack thereof, is not an unhealthy paradigm of parenting, even when it means letting them fail.
Maybe especially when they fail.
The concept of "resiliency" (Bernard, 1991) focuses on caring relationships as essential in communicating confidence in a young person's innate ability to bounce back from adversity, looking for strengths as opposed to weaknesses. In his book, How Children Succeed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough also argues that doing well is related more to such things as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control than to pre-school admissions and SAT scores.
Yet too often, we rush to superimpose our own metrics of success on young people who benefit most from establishing their own. Sally Koslow, author of Slouching Toward Adulthood (Viking, 2012), joins philosophically with Levine in warning against what Levine calls "doing for them what they can do for themselves," lest we unwittingly arrest their personal development before it has really begun. That is a phenomenon only exacerbated by substance use.
And so it goes that we best serve our children and teens by being authoritative parents -- not friends, nor tyrants, nor bystanders -- including setting expectations and limits; providing structure and support; and allowing them to be accountable for successes and failures.
Apparently not so for Ethan Couch.