Don’t Catch Affluenza This Christmas

by Nancy French
Parents want material comfort for their children — but too much poses dangers to the soul.

I looked at my 14-year-old daughter’s Christmas list, written on a yellow legal pad with curly letters and little hearts.

“Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath,” was written in loopy script, right next to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. (She comes by her conservatism naturally.) Then, there was Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer next to C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. There were probably 20 books on her list, an Amazon Prime parent’s dream. 

When I heard that Eric Metaxas was interviewing Malcolm Gladwell in his successful Manhattan series Socrates in the City, I knew I’d found the perfect Christmas present. And so, just before Christmas, Camille and I headed to New York for a few nights to enjoy the city — and we even had a little snow.

Gladwell’s book — about overcoming odds, David-versus-Goliath-style — includes a chapter about wealth and its consequences for children. Gladwell writes about a powerful man in Hollywood who had grown up working blue-collar jobs in Minneapolis. He used to see basketball games in the cheap seats, behind a pole, wondering what it would be like to sit courtside. But that was before he became wealthy. Gladwell writes:

Like any parent, he wanted to provide for [his children], to give them more than he had. But he had created a giant contradiction, and he knew it. He was successful because he had learned the long and hard way about the value of money and the meaning of work and the joy and fulfillment that come from making your own way in the world. But because of his success, it would be difficult for his children to learn the same lessons. Children of multimillionaires in Hollywood don’t rake the leaves of their neighbors in Beverly Hills. . . . They do not sit in a basketball arena behind a pillar wondering what it would be like to sit courtside. They live courtside.

Camille and I discussed this chapter the morning of the Socrates in the City event in the joyful anticipation that naturally occurs when Mom lets you skip school and have an adventure.

That’s when it dawned on me. My kids live courtside, and so might yours. 

We aren’t multimillionaires, or even millionaires, but our kids have so many more opportunities than we had growing up. My parents grew up on Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee. My dad was the son of a coal miner, dropped out of high school six times, and eventually earned his GED. He lied about his age, joined the Marines at 15, and learned how to drive a tank before he knew how to drive a car. He brushed his teeth with a torn-off tree branch, the bark peeled back to create “bristles.” 

Suffice it to say, when I was a kid, we didn’t have Hilton Honors points (which allowed Camille and me to stay in Times Square for free Wednesday night). We didn’t have a Southwest frequent-flier number, because we never went anywhere farther than Kentucky. I’d never heard of The New Yorker, which has arrived in our mailbox every week for the past few years and introduced us to Gladwell’s writing.

In other words, our kids have grown up with many more opportunities than we ever had.

Many parents identify with the challenges of raising children in the modern world. That’s one of the reasons — coupled with the shocking failure of the criminal-justice system — why the Ethan Couch case felt like a punch in the gut.

The 16-year-old rich kid from Texas got only ten years’ probation after killing four people (and paralyzing one) while driving drunk. His attorney claimed Ethan was the victim of “affluenza,” which is a fake condition resulting from having too much money, not enough understanding of consequence, and a cancerous sense of entitlement. His punishment includes spending time in a rehab clinic near Newport Beach, which costs almost half a million dollars per year and where he can have organic food and equine therapy.

Is it possible that the thing for which we parents have been striving — material comfort — is actually poisoning our children in insidious ways?

Though it’s definitely difficult to raise kids with too little money, it’s also hard to raise them with too much. Gladwell points out that there is little sympathy for wealthy people who discuss this phenomenon. However, the tragic Couch case affirms what even we non-multimillionaires already know: Getting everything you want presents its own set of problems.

This should be a lesson for us all when it comes to December 25.

Christmas is when parents try to make their kids’ dreams all come true, even if just for one day. Every television ad reinforces the message to parents: Pull out all the stops, indulge, give your kids their best day of the year.

It’s easy to see why December 25 is frequently the most depressing day of the year as well.

There’s something incredibly dejecting about watching your kid open a gift and sensing that it simply isn’t the right color or size. There’s something even worse about knowing you’re not as grateful as you should be for the package of new socks, or even those new diamond earrings your spouse has so kindly placed under the tree. Christmas, though just one day, reveals our hearts, exposes our sense of entitlement, and sometimes just falls short. Of course, we know it shouldn’t be about the gifts. But we also know Santa doesn’t drop everything down the chimney. Someone’s got to stock up on the Scotch tape, bake two dozen cookies for school, and figure out the right amount to spend on the gift for the boss.

Because it’s so easy to lose sight of the miraculous birth of Christ, we sink too much value into the idea that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” and we had better enjoy it, darn it.

This Christmas, however, don’t succumb to affluenza of the heart. When you sit down to open presents with the kids, remember this: Christ came even though we are broken, entitled, spoiled, and ungrateful. Even more to the point, he came because we are those things.

Instead of being shocked and hurt when your kid rolls his eyes after opening a Lego set just like the one he already owns, simply point him to Christ. Remind him of God’s goodness during this season.

And don’t forget to point yourself to Christ by laying down your expectations of “the perfect holiday,” “the perfect gift from your spouse,” or “the perfect reaction from your kids.”

After all, it’s not just children who live with selfish, entitled hearts.

Nancy French is a New York Times best-selling author.