Sympathy for the li'l devils: Why we should give rich kids a break
There are few things more fascinating in modern celebrity culture than the offspring of the one per cent. We watch them through tabloids, society columns and social media as though they’re exotic tropical fish on display in a giant glass tank – except that, unlike aquariums, we feel entitled to bang on the glass.
The fascination is understandable. These young – often beautiful – specimens have grown up in a lifestyle of which most of us can only dream. They also tend to fall into one of two categories: easy-to-love future leaders of society; and obnoxious, entitled brats who make Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts look like Mother Teresa. Sometimes saints; sometimes sinners, but always possessing a boatload of cash that only serves to magnify their personalities, good and bad.
In the first category, we have widely beloved figures like Kate Middleton, Prince William, pre-presidency Ivanka Trump, Ariana Rockefeller, Delphine Arnault, Emma Roberts and Bee Shaffer. Canada, perhaps unsurprisingly with its modest tendencies, has its own share of rich kids turned respectable adults. Take, for example, Brittney Kuczynski who works a full-time finance job while co-founding events like the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards (CAFA) and The Grand Commission gala to combat sex trafficking. Last year, she convinced Suzanne Rogers to make a whopping $1 million donation to Covenant House. Mira Singh, who once appeared on Teen Cribs showing off her parents’ Bridle Path mansion, is now the self-made partnerships director at Toronto-headquartered beauty success story Deciem. Montana Kimel could kick back and lunch at the Four Seasons every day, but instead of seeking the spotlight, she earned a degree in International Relations and uses her time to volunteer for organizations like Save the Children and 416 Community Support for Women.
Then there are the Conrad Hiltons of the world, who infamously wandered around a commercial flight calling other passengers “peasants,” and was recently charged with stealing a car, followed by a bizarre court appearance in which he mocked the judge and mouthed obscenities. Speaking of infamous, there was also the case of Ethan Couch successfully defending himself against charges of intoxication manslaughter by blaming “affluenza.” The Kardashians, Jenners and any member of the Rich Kids of Beverly Hills cast could also make this list.
In Canada, celebrity chef Susur Lee’s sons Kai and Levi Bent-Lee have earned a dedicated following of haters for things like Levi owning a Bentleythat not-so-subtly dons the license plate “Bent Lee” and posting Instagram photos of his girlfriend’s tattooed behind (inked with “Bad Ass” on the right cheek) with the caption “winner winner.” As for Kai, he’s taken his talents to YouTube where he talks about getting his Yves Saint Laurent jeans re-tailored for extra leg tightness and experiencing Wendy’s with friends for the first time by driving there in his Mercedes-AMG G63 and ordering everything on the menu. He also instructs viewers that the best way to make a left turn in Toronto is to speed past a lane of waiting cars at the very last second and – in perhaps his finest moment – has an F-bomb-laced meltdown when he can’t pay for bubble tea with AmEX. Comedian and chef impersonator Grant Soto (@chefgrantsoto) has created a viral Instagram Stories series that mocks the Lee offspring’s penchant for wealth-induced ridiculousness.
Given anecdotal evidence, alone, it’s not completely surprising that psychologists widely consider socioeconomic status to be the number one indicator of child welfare. While we often focus on how this affects children with too few resources, it also places an extra burden on those born into wealthy families. Some psychologists, such as Madeline Levine, Ph.D, author of The Price of Privilege, say rich kids are even more “at-risk” than their low-income counterparts.
Privileged children experience a higher rate of depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse than any other socioeconomic group of young people in America. Research shows they tend to be more self-centred, depressed and self-destructive. In one Columbia University study, 22 per cent of affluent kids were found to be clinically depressed. These symptoms can be seen in children as young as 10 years old. They’re more narcissistic as a whole, yet also tend to lack a sense of self – the basic foundation of psychological development. Perhaps some of this can be explained by access to doctors to diagnose and prescribe pills, and money to splurge on alcohol and drugs, but it also hints at the unique, often overlooked challenge of parenting the one per cent.
As we often see, their advantages lead them to excel – particularly in sport, business and academia – but, when they fail, they fall harder than others do. American psychiatrist Frank Pittman once explained it as, “successes are expected and failures are both highly visible and apparently inexplicable.” To be average is even often seen as a failure by both their parents and society. Their successes are attributed to outside factors and their failures are seen as intensely personal in light of all they supposedly have going for them.
The money itself isn’t the source of corruption; it’s what comes with the money. Often affluent households have an increased emphasis on competition, perfectionism and materialism. Paradoxically, wealthy parents are frequently either too indulgent or too absent – both literally and emotionally. Wealthy children are actually more likely to be left unsupervised after school than low-income children. A rotating cast of nannies, tutors and housekeepers can lead to an unpredictability regarding the personality, presence and attentiveness of a primary caregiver.
Too much emphasis can be placed on the family’s wealth and public identity, causing them to lack that all-important sense of self and overvalue things like wealth, public admiration and status. It’s how you end up with a “Bent Lee” Bentley.
They’re also susceptible to how society stigmatizes the wealthy as selfish, greedy, elitist and even criminal. The current anti-elitist, anti-Wall Street climate doesn’t help matters much. Sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or creates an inner conflict about how they feel about their own wealth. They see how they and their parents can be used, pigeon-holed, valued solely for their access to private jets and even easily discarded for the next best thing. It instills a deep distrust of the world. Ironically, the world also trusts them less due to the aforementioned stereotypes.
So how does a well-meaning one per center avoid raising the next hellion of Beverly Hills? According to Levine, the key isn’t to raise them with middle or lower-class values; it’s to redefine what it means to be upper class in a way that’s not “inherently flawed.” This means not pressuring kids to exceed the success of already uber-successful parents, not rewarding good behaviour with material rewards or making up for bad days with shopping sprees, and providing consistent discipline.
While it may be morbidly entertaining to watch rich kids combust from afar, it’s not doing society any favours when those with the greatest opportunities and resources to provoke positive change waste it all on bottle service, designer bags and lawyer fees. Of course, no one is suggesting that privileged children who ostensibly have it all are more in need of assistance than low-income kids. However, our fascination with this set and the schadenfreude we often derive from their failings is not without an impact.
Perhaps we’d do better to remind ourselves that even the rich kids are still just kids.