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Gilded Youth and Their Pain

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Hollywood-handsome Princeton grad recently shot his hedge-fund-founder father to death. The alleged reason: Thomas Gilbert Sr.'s plan to cut his allowance by $200 a month. You can imagine what the tabloids are doing with the story.  

There's a lot going on here, and while mental illness is almost certainly part of it, as said, there's a lot going on. For the public, there's no little satisfaction (there must be a better word) in the tragedy's message for the economically struggling masses: Money can't cure all ills. Or going further, money causes ills.   

Tommy Gilbert, the accused, shuttled between his Manhattan pad and the posh Hamptons. He attended swank parties and supposedly had plans to start his own hedge fund. That's not an unusual set of facts for the gilded children of America's rich.  

The details that stick out are these: Tommy was 30 years old, and his parents were still giving him an allowance -- of $3,000 a month (according to the New York Post). The decision to shrink the monthly handout by a strangely small sum seemed calculated to humiliate. Moreover, the $200 was stipulated to come out of the spending money, not rent.  

I'll stop right there. I may have already overstepped the bounds in speculating about a family I have never met. But both social and traditional media have been all over this story, theorizing that the rich may be different from you and me, to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but they are also more messed up.  

The affluent have been widely perceived as impervious to the slings and arrows that afflict ordinary people. That's why relatively little research has gone into their children's psychological anguish -- which in many cases is immense.   

Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University, accidentally discovered this reality while studying inner-city teens, she writes in Psychology Today. For comparison, she also observed teens from prosperous suburban families, defined as making $150,000 or more a year.   

To Luthar's surprise, the affluent teens did much more poorly on measures of drug use and binge drinking and no better than their low-income contemporaries on cheating and stealing. The richer kids were also found to have the highest rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse of any group of children in the country.  

"There is a tacit assumption -- even among those most affected," Luthar writes -- "that education and money procure well-being, and that if children falter, they will swiftly get the appropriate services."   

She says that may have been somewhat true in the past, but it's no longer the case. Today's emotional disturbances are being more fueled by pressure for "high-octane achievement." Many parents seem totally focused on their children's high-status accomplishments, whether in academics, in sports or in social conquest.   

This puts boys especially "at risk for limited compassion and kindness," Luthar adds. They are unhappy and desperate to make as much money as their parents. To them, that requires getting into prestigious colleges.   

In her book "The Price of Privilege," therapist Madeline Levine describes how affluent parents, however well-meaning, push their children toward materialism, perfectionism and competition while being disconnected with them in a personal way. The relationships are basically mechanical in nature.   

Luthar says the problem is not necessarily one of richer parents not being around or inattentive. They are often all over the kids. The problem is constant adult criticism that the children are somehow not measuring up, with little emphasis on emotional closeness.   

At a time when many Americans obsess over growing income inequality, it may be hard to feel for children on the moneyed side of the equation. But pain is pain.   

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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