The XX Factor

Teach Your Well-Off Children Well

In her fittingly titled 2006 parenting bestseller, The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine anticipated the rush of worry about how overparenting can damage affluent teenagers. Levine is a clinical psychologist with a practice in Marin County, and her patients are young cutters and drinkers whose parents hover and pressure without, somehow, evincing real caring. She identified both a real problem and a highly specific one–the latest incarnation of the poor little rich kid. These are kids who judge themselves as failures if they don’t get into top colleges, because of parents who use the wrong pronoun when they say, as Levine writes, “we’re applying to Columbia.”

In her new book, Teach Your Children Well, Levine tries for solutions. “The question shifted from identifying the problem to, what are we going to do about it?” she tells Anna North at Buzzfeed. And there is sound practical advice in her book. For one thing, get out of your kids’ schoolwork and college applications. Quit sending the message that their academic or athletic success is your own status marker. But in the much-emailed New York Times op-ed she wrote last weekend, Levine is a little vaguer and more baffling when she writes, “The optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy.” She is citing the research showing that “authorative” parenting is generally better for kids than a style that’s more permissive or more heavy-handed. I think of this as the just-right porridge temperature in the Goldilocks story. The problem of course is that you have to know what’s too hot and what’s too cold to know what the desired middle ground is, and that’s not always self evident.

I also find Levine unconvincing when she claims that the problems of overprivileged apply to a broad swath of middle-class kids. Parents a few rungs below her patients’ parents on the economic ladder feel the pressure that leads to stuffing kids with enrichment, but they don’t have the resources to pull off the really nutty stuff, like weekly $300 college essay tutorials. While the troubles of Levine’s patients are real, they shouldn’t take much air time away from a far bigger problem: what David Brooks calls the opportunity gap between wealthier and poorer kids. Here is Brooks on the increasing lopsideness in how they are raised, and why inequity is the crisis:

Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation… . Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached.