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So 'affluenza' is actually a legit malady?

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published Jan. 13, 2016

Some verbal atrocities are either too offensive or too absurd to ever be forgotten. Like Jonathan Gruber's candid admission that "the stupidity of the American voter ... was really, really critical for [Obamacare] to pass." Or Brian Williams misremembering that he had been shot down in a helicopter. Or Al Gore's claim that he invented the internet (although, in all fairness, that was not quite what he said).

But few violations of common sense and common decency compare to that of Jean Boyd, the judge who concluded that probation and rehab were sufficient punishment for Ethan Crouch -- after he pled guilty to taking the lives of four people while driving drunk -- because he was a victim of affluenza.

Now, two years later, after Ethan Crouch has violated his parole, fled to Mexico with his mother, and finally ended up back in custody, the Washington Post would like us to reconsider whether the diagnosis is really so ridiculous after all. Rallying experts to support his case, Post editor Fred Barbash suggests that affluenza may indeed be an authentic malady, citing ASU professor of psychology Suniya S. Luthar and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College:


"High-risk behavior, including extreme substance abuse and promiscuous sex, is growing fast among young people from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents. These kids show serious levels of maladjustment as teens, displaying marijuana and alcohol abuse, including binge drinking [and] abuse of illegal or prescription drugs.

"[What also stands out] is the type of rule-breaking - widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens."


And finally: Serious depression or anxiety among affluent kids is "is two to three times national rates."

No arguments from this quarter. But what does not appear in Mr. Barbash's lengthy commentary is even the most meager attempt to identify why affluence produces teenage miscreants. What is it about growing up with every possible advantage that predisposes so many children to criminally irresponsible behavior?

The answer is quite simple. Children suffering from affluenza have been around for a long time. But we used to call them something else: spoiled rotten.

If a child is given whatever he wants with no strings attached, if he doesn't have to wash dishes and tidy up his own room, if he doesn't have to work for his spending money, if he receives a shiny new car on his sixteenth birthday with no concern for the cost of gas, repairs, or insurance, if he doesn't have to pay for his own traffic tickets or make up classes he fails in school, then how can he possibly be expected not to take everything he has for granted? If he loses his iPhone or totals his car and the powers-that-be simply conjure up another one to replace it, how can he be expected to acquire a work ethic or any understanding that there are consequences for carelessness?

This is why youngsters growing up in advantaged homes often have no sense of appreciation for what they have and no concern for how they act. And it is certainly why they possess no concept of noblesse-oblige, the implicit awareness of the duty that accompanies privilege.

THE COMMON CORE

Let's take this reasoning a step further. If we have the courage to penetrate the fog of political correctness, we can recognize that the root of the problem afflicting the affluent is identical to that which ails the lowest economic strata as well: entitlement.

Indeed, children who grow up in poverty will never seek to extricate themselves if the basic necessities are provided -- with no strings attached -- as part of a governmental safety net. However well-intentioned and compassionate, programs that encourage the poor to remain poor sap all their resolve to better their circumstances, condemning them and their children to a never-ending cycle of poverty and listlessness.

In some ways, however, the affluent have it worse. Despite all else, at least the poor know why they are unhappy. But the privileged can find no excuses for their unhappiness. The gnawing discontent that comes from not having earned what they have and from lacking any direction in life, compounds their feelings of emptiness and futility with a sense of guilt and shame. With everything they could possibly want, they should be happy, and they can't understand why they're not.

So they turn to alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity, indifferent to the long-term effects of their actions on themselves or the short-term effects on those around them.

THE REAL AFFLICTION AND THE REAL CURE

Their problem is not wealth. It is the failure of their parents to instill in them a sense of the value of money, an appreciation for the blessing of good fortune into which they have been born, and the self-discipline necessary to make themselves worthy inheritors of that good fortune. Once upon a time, every CEO understood that his son had to start out in the mailroom in order to start climbing the ladder to the top. Now, many college graduates expect to start their careers as CEO.

Indeed, our entire culture is now turned on its head, with society contributing to the malaise. And there is no more appalling example than the case of Ethan Crouch: because wickedly irresponsible parents never taught him that there are consequences for his actions, an irresponsibly wicked judge reasoned that he cannot be held responsible even for murder.

With that kind of thinking, we can instantaneously solve all our problems of crime and overcrowded prisons: no one should be incarcerated, ever, since none of us is responsible for anything we do.

Without cultivating the sense that prosperity is a function of discipline and hard work, our children will suffer on two levels. First, they never learn that personal achievement is the key to success and happiness. Second, they never learn to take pleasure in what they have. Without these, a downward spiral into nihilism and misery is inevitable.

Even if affluenza is a real affliction, it can be easily prevented with a simple inoculation called responsible parenting. When children are raised to be givers rather than takers; when they are taught to see themselves as custodians of blessings rather than lottery winners on the one hand or victims of oppression on the other; when they learn to recognize the implicit obligation to use opportunity as a fulcrum to raise up themselves and their world to a higher moral and spiritual plain -- then their lives will be filled with purpose and joy, which will ripple outward to brighten the lives of others.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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