How to Cure Affluenza

Family Giving Tree

There's no denying the difficulties of raising a child in a privileged environment without giving him a, well, sense of privilege. Money can buy many things, including knowledge and confidence and a sense that everything will work out for you, because it almost always does.

There has been a lot of media coverage lately about Ethan Couch, the affluent Texas teen who was sentenced to probation instead of manslaughter for killing 4 people in a drunk driving accident.  He'll be serving his probation at a private rehab center that costs $450,000 per year (his parents will pay the tab).  One of the defense's arguments for leniency was that the boy suffered from "affluenza". Well, they just perpetuated the kid's "affluenza" with that verdict, because it seems like money once again shielded him from the consequences of his actions.

My kids will never end up like Ethan Couch.  For one thing, we're not rich enough to cushion them from life's curveballs.  For another, we're trying to teach them to solve their own problems.  If one of my kids does something great -- gets the lead in a play, wins a stuffed toy at a fair, aces a test -- I'm not buying the other two any consolation prizes to make up for their disappointment for not doing as well.  Is their allowance not enough to cover that toy they're coveting?  We could afford to buy it for them, but they'll just have to ask us for extra chores to get some extra money.  Also, they know there are just some things they can't or shouldn't buy given the family's disposable income, like Ferraris and Teslas and $400 Lego space stations.  Even if they did have $400, I wouldn't let them spend it all on one toy.  I'd tell them to save some of it in their college fund.

Most importantly, we are determined to make them aware of their privilege, and show them that most of the world doesn't live with the same sense of security that they do.  But it's the hardest thing to do, because unless they've experienced it, they'll never fully understand what it's like to wonder where your next meal is coming from or be happy about getting new shoes for Christmas because your old ones are in tatters.

Short of living in poverty ourselves, the next best thing we can do is open their eyes.  We let them watch the news, even all the horrible footage of earthquake victims or typhoon victims or the swollen-bellied children who live in landfills. I point out homeless people and beggars and ask them to think about how they could have gotten into that situation. When we visit the Philippines, we don't cocoon ourselves in air conditioned comfort: I've taken them to markets where you can buy a single egg or a cup of rice grains, and explained to them that they sell in such small amounts because that's all people can afford.  They've ridden on buses and jeepneys and boats that are so crowded and filthy you want to take a shower even before you step inside... and I remind them that many people have no choice.

I'm not just doing it so the kids will feel sorry for these people.  I want to show the kids that these people are not so different.  That we have so much in common, but for the accident of birth or circumstance.  That we don't really deserve any special treatment.   If a poor person or a person of color ever killed someone while driving drunk, they'd probably rot in jail for years.

Hopefully, everything Alfie and I are doing is awakening a sense of empathy in our kids -- but I'm not standing around and waiting to see if it does.  Young as they are, I want to get them into the mindset of helping others.  I want to develop a habit of community service at an early age -- you're never too young to start!  Whenever I donate to a charity, I let the kids know I'm doing it, and why.  We give them change to support their school fundraisers.  When typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last month, I organized a relief drive at school to collect diapers, toothpaste and other toiletries, canned goods and emergency supplies.  The kids came with me to the donations receiving center and helped unload the donations.
Rise up Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan relief

This weekend, we did our annual volunteer shift at the Family Giving Tree, sorting and wrapping presents that will eventually be distributed to underprivileged children around the Bay Area.  It has become a tradition that we look forward to every year.  The three-hour commitment can be tiring, but we always stay longer than we need to and the kids always want to do more.  The Pea, Jammy and 3Po know that for many kids, this could be the only toy they receive all year, so they love seeing all the toys, picking their favorites, and imagining how happy the recipient is going to be when he gets it.  I love seeing my kids put themselves in another's place (the seeds of empathy!), I love seeing their eagerness to help, and I love seeing their satisfaction at being a part of such a wonderful community program.
Family Giving Tree

Maybe it's as simple as the Apple a Day rule:  an act of charity a day keeps the affluenza away.  
Family Giving Tree

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1 comment:

Catherine Gacad said...

this is something that i definitely struggle with, as i learned so much humility from my immigrant parents. i fear my own child will never understand it. but as you say, it's about exposing them to how others live: the poverty, the destruction of catastrophes. i have traveled twice to the philippines and learned to be so grateful from those experiences--one of which was a medical mission. i want my kid to do the same.