“Children are living messages we send to a time we will not see” – Anonymous
Have you ever heard of Affluenza? No… not the common flu. AFFLUENZA. It is basically a blend of two words: affluent and influenza. It is characterized by extreme materialism where someone has an insatiable appetite to amass wealth. Just like influenza, the flu virus, this social virus infects millions of people, and it consumes their lives with the shameless pursuit of material possessions. It has produced a new set of values where people regard material possessions and status as more valuable than character. In the process, it removes all sense of accountability, creating a society where short-cuts are the name of the game. Sounds familiar?
The major symptoms of Affluenza are lack of conscience and the sense of ‘not being in touch with the consequences of one’s actions’. Apparently, this term has been around for a while, dating back to the 70s. However, it hit the headlines in 2013, when 16 year old Ethan Couch from Texas killed four people as he sped in his truck while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Couch’s blood alcohol level was three times the adult legal limit and there were traces of Valium and other drugs in his system. The alcohol had been stolen from a local supermarket. Couch admitted to intoxication and manslaughter, and the case seemed very straightforward – 20 years in jail would be the expected sentence. But here’s where it got interesting. His lawyers argued that he suffered from “Affluenza” and because of his privileged upbringing; he was not able to fully understand the consequences of his actions. A psychologist testified in court that because of Affluenza, Ethan was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences because his parents never taught him about setting limits. Based on that testimony, the judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation with no jail term, instead of the 20 year jail term.
Yeah. I thought so too.
As I read through the outrage that poured out from all over the world on the ruling of the case, I silently wondered about Ethan Couch. And naturally, as I always do in my line of work, I wondered about his upbringing. And it made me think of the new breed of clients coming through my office. The new breed of young adults being churned out of our schools and colleges, into the job market. And I wondered if there was any possibility that they could be having traces… yes… just teeny weeny traces of Affluenza. And, naturally, again, I wondered about their upbringing. And, even more naturally, I arrived at the same conclusion that I get to EVERY SINGLE TIME. That faulty parenting begets faulty children and teens, who turn into faulty adults and who make up a faulty society. A society with a severe case of Affluenza.
And I became afraid. Very very afraid. That without really being aware of it, we could be breeding a generation of “Affluenzic” citizens. In very small, very subtle ways.
Now, I am not big on parent-bashing. As a parent, I have made my fair share of goof-ups. In a transitioning and developing country like ours, with the current education system and all the economic pressures and social demands, 21st century parenting has got to be the most challenging job on this side of God’s earth. Add to that, the pressure to be a perfect, present, loving parent, and you have the perfect recipe for burnout. So, my intention is not to parent-bash. My intention is to point out, very specifically, the ways in which we could, unknowingly, be creating an Affluenzic society. Ways in which we could be breeding little Ethan Couches, who, 10 to 15 years from now, will claim that they were not able to fully understand the consequences of their actions. Tragic actions that will have cost lives. And a lot of pain.
It’s no secret that we’re raising a generation of children with a massive sense of entitlement. Let me tell you how it all started. Many of us were raised by parents who, when it came to discipline, they ‘did the deed’ before they said they’d do the deed. In fact, most of them just did it… the ‘saying’ part was optional – for just a few ‘un-enlightened’ parents. There was no discussion, no consultation, and no questions. They just did. They fully bought into the school of thought that ‘actions speak louder than words’. Other times, all they did was give you ‘the look’. Remember that classic stare that was especially famous with mums? It was enough to make you rearrange your face, your thoughts and all your body systems and align them accordingly… ‘or else’. Nobody ever waited for the ‘or else’ to happen, because our parents and all the adults in our ‘village’ meant exactly what they said…. Or ‘look’ed.
Fast forward. 20…30 years. You are holding your sweet little angel in your arms for the first time. And you cannot even begin to describe the surge of emotions that are going through you. Such love. Such tenderness. A sweet sense of awe and amazement. You’ve never felt anything close to this before. Not even your teenage heart-throb from way back in the day who ended up breaking your innocent heart into tiny little pieces and ‘ruined you forever’, came this close. And at that moment, as you hold the priceless bundle in your arms, something deep… very deep inside of you… that primitive animal instinct within you, makes a silent vow. A solemn vow that you’re not even aware you’ve made.
I’d do anything for this little angel. I’ll protect her with my whole life. I’ll move heaven and earth to give him the best the world can offer.
And so you set out to do exactly that.
Problem is, there’s no manual for ‘the best the world can offer’. Since the only standard of parenting you have is your own upbringing, a lot of your parenting decisions are determined by what your parents did, or didn’t do. If you were raised by a strict disciplinarian who communicated ‘the look’, it most likely left some bile in your mouth that has caused you to silently swear that you’ll never allow your children to go through what you did. It becomes a case of the pendulum swinging from one extreme end to the other – you become overly permissive. A no-spine, no-grit kind of parent. Still, for others, it may not necessarily be in defiance or rebellion against your upbringing. It simply stems from a genuine desire to give your children ‘the best the world can offer’.
Enter Affluenza. In all its trappings.
Ethan couch’s case might be an extreme, but whichever way you’re coming from, you have to agree with me that we’re faced with a generation in their teens and early 20s who have very little, if any idea, what ‘respect’, ‘authority’, ‘kindness’, ‘empathy’, ‘hard work’ and ‘delayed gratification’ really mean. To them, these are just catchy phrases that do the rounds on social media as famous quotes by a guy called ‘Anonymous’. Phrases that only require you to ‘like’ or ‘share’ as a public declaration that you endorse the quotes. But… what they truly mean? Absolutely no clue. And trust me, I am not being sensational. It’s simply an acceptance of facts as they are. I interact with them as I teach at the university. I encounter them in my therapy sessions. And I can tell you with all confidence that these kids truly, sincerely and genuinely believe that the world should be handed over to them on a big fat golden spoon, dripping with honey and garnished with all those delicious toppings from Planet Yogurt. Yum. And as they would put it… Like for real.
So….How did we get here? Better still, how are we getting there?
Over time, I have made a couple of observations, most of them from my own parenting goofs, others from the therapy sessions I have with children, and many more from the training sessions I do with parents. These observations have helped me realize just how easy it is to get there. Because these habits creep up on us in very small and subtle ways.
And here’s my candid conclusion. As parents, we have relinquished the reins of authority to our children. We have sent them a very clear message that we are not in charge. We are afraid that if we don’t give them what they demand, they will dislike or even hate us. And woe unto us if our children disliked us, right? We have allowed them to believe that parenting is a democracy in which their vote is required for EVERY decision of their waking, and sleeping moments. Our kids believe that they are the center of the world. That the world MUST revolve around them. That they have to be rewarded (or bribed) for simple house chores because ‘that is someone else’s job’. They believe that while rules can be made, they’re not necessarily made to be followed. After all, if the rules are broken, there are no real consequences. That life has shortcuts and when the going gets tough, all you need to do is find a way to cut through the system. That there is always an easy way out, it just needs to be discovered. And whoever invents it becomes the hero of the day. Mind you, the hero will only last a day, because the inventions are coming at us real fast and furious.
We’ve done this, not deliberately, but out of very good intentions – to give our children ‘the best the world can offer’.
So, for the next few posts, I’ll take some time to share my thoughts, based on my experiences as a parent, trainer and therapist, just to shed light on some of the clues, some of the parenting behaviors that are likely to lead to traces …or to a full-blown serious case of Affluenza.
So stick with me, OK?
Oh…and please stay away from the flu. BOTH flusJ
Dr. Carolyne is a psychologist, lecturer and parenting coach. She is passionate about parenting, emotional wellness and quality education. Her mission is to walk with parents going through different spaces and phases of their parenting journey; by empowering them through coaching and counselling, in order to equip them to parent with purpose and confidence.